03 February 2010

'Vouchsafed the Intelligence of the Rhetors'—St Maximus the Greek

Today, 21 January on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Maximus the Greek (c. 1475-1556), the ‘Enlightener of the Russians’. [1] Pierre Kovalevsky calls him ‘the great Orthodox humanist’, and observes that he ‘was one of the most erudite men of his period’. [2] In this post on his life in Greek at the Vatopaidi blog, he is referred to as ‘a most learned monk, distinguished as a theologian, philosopher, writer, and poet during the 16th century’, and as ‘an enlightener and reformer of the Russian nation’. Here is the excruciatingly brief account of St Maximus’s life in the Prologue:

He was born in Greece, whence he was called to the court of Russian Tsar Vasilii Ivanovitch as Imperial librarian and translator. He laboured much and also suffered much for the truth. He spent a long time in prison, where he wrote the well-known Canon to the Holy Spirit which is still used in church, and entered into rest in the Lord in the year 1556. [3]

There is a great Life of St Maximus here, at the website of the St John the Baptist Cathedral (ROCOR) in Washington, DC. Also, in my post on St Maximus last year, I did my best to sketch a more substantial Life of this little-known Saint based largely on Fr Georges Florovsky’s Ways of Russian Theology and James Billington’s The Icon & the Axe—the two most substantial sources on St Maximus that I had at the time. As regular readers will know, however, I have since acquired a copy of Sir Dimitri Obolensky’s invaluable Six Byzantine Portraits, which dedicates a whole chapter to St Maximus. [4] Although my account of St Maximus’s life on the Holy Mountain and in Russia still stands, Obolensky has enabled me to expand greatly on the years he spent in the West, prior to his tonsure at Vatopaidi. It is worth quoting Obolensky’s own words about our historical knowledge of this period.

. . . In 1942 the Russian scholar Élie Denissoff published in Louvain a book entitled Maxime le Grec et l’Occident. In it he proved conclusively that Maxim was none other than Michael Trivolis, a Greek expatriate who frequented the humanistic schools of Italy in the late fifteenth century. It is not often that the biography of a major historical figure is so unexpectedly enlarged by a scholarly discovery; and Denissoff could justifiably claim that, thanks to his book, the life of Maximos the Greek assumed the shape of a diptych, of which Mount Athos is the hinge, and Italy and Muscovite Russia are the two leaves.

There is no need to rehearse here Denissoff’s arguments. They are based on compelling historical, literary, and graphological evidence, and are generally accepted today. [5] Thus, in any account of the life and work of Maximos the Greek, we must start with Michael Trivolis. [6]

Now, to my mind the most fascinating information we gain from this is precisely all of the detail of St Maximus’s life in the West. For instance, Obolensky points out, ‘In Florence, where he [probably moved in 1492 and] remained for three years, his vocation as a scholar was shaped by the teaching of the Greek philologist John [aka ‘Janus’] Lascaris and by the influence of the great Platonist Marsilio Ficino.’[7] Lascaris was a librarian and book-collector for Lorenzo de’ Medici, and one of the men responsible for the flourishing of Greek studies in Renaissance humanism. [8] Ficino, for those who do not know him, is the ‘most central and most influential representative of Renaissance Platonism . . . , in whom the medieval philosophical and religious heritage and the teachings of Greek Platonism are brought together in a novel synthesis.’ [9] Ficino produced the first complete translations of Plato and Plotinus into Latin, as well as the Corpus Hermeticum and the writings of St Dionysius the Areopagite.

Another important influence is the Dominican reformer, Savonarola, whom I mentioned briefly in my earlier post. Obolensky writes:

He probably never met him personally; but he certainly heard him preach. The full impact of this influence was to come later, after Savonarola’s execution in 1498. Later still, in Moscow, he wrote for the Russians a detailed account of Savonarola’s life, describing his famous Lenten sermons, his conflict with the pope, and his grisly execution in Florence. He extolled him as a man ‘filled with every kind of wisdom’, and added, perhaps with a touch of tactful self-censorship, that, had Savonarola not belonged to the Latin faith, he would surely have been numbered among the Church’s holy confessors. . . . [T]he influence of the Italian friar [is easily identifiable] on Maxim’s later concern with moral problems, on his love of poverty, and perhaps too on his outspokenness and courage in adversity. [10]

Obolensky also mentions a name which should be familiar to all true bibliophiles: that of Aldus Manutius (1449-1515), the famous humanist printer who invented italic type. The Aldine Press in Venice was set up ‘primarily for the printing of Greek texts’, both classical and patristic. [11] When St Maximus went to Venice in 1496, he ‘became associated with Aldus’. Indeed, ‘He later told a Russian correspondent that he often visited Aldus for reasons which had to do with books.’ [12] Obolensky points out that it is possible St Maximus may actually have been employed at the press, ‘and that he worked on the edition of Aristotle which Aldus was then preparing in Venice; but we cannot be certain of this. His later work . . . suggests that he had been trained to edit texts . . . .’ [13] It is interesting to note too that according to Dennis Lackner’s brilliant article on the Camaldolese order and humanist Platonism, ‘Five humanists associated with the Aldine circle . . . either were or became Camaldolese hermits’, that is, hermits in the tradition of St Romuald of Ravenna (about whom I have blogged here and here). [14] In this light, the decision of young Michael Trivolis to join the Dominicans, and his later departure for Mt Athos, acquire new interest.

Next, in 1498, in his apparent quest to meet all of the important figures of Renaissance Italy, St Maximus came into ‘the service of another Italian, the distinguished Hellenist Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, nephew of the celebrated Platonist Giovanni Pico’. [15] Obolensky writes:

The four years which he spent at Mirandola were an important landmark in his life. Gianfrancesco Pico was not only a classical scholar, a true ελληνομανής, as Michael wrote to a friend in March 1500. He was also a convinced Christian, a student of patristic writings, and a great admirer of Savonarola. The news of Savonarola’s execution was received at Mirandola while Michael was there. [16]

But perhaps the most surprising fact brought to light by Denissoff’s discovery—which was entirely unknown to me at the time of the writing of my earlier post and first brought to my attention in a comment there by my good friend Esteban Vázquez—is that under the influence of Savonarola, the young Michael Trivolis actually joined the Dominican Order. Obolensky notes that around 1500, the influences of Platonic philosophy and classical scholarship, the patristic tradition, and Savonarola must all have been competing somewhat in him, and the one that won out at the time was the last. Obolensky writes, ‘A note in an unpublished chronicle of the monastery of San Marco in Florence states that in 1502 Michael (‘Frater Michael Emmanuelis de civitate Arta’) was professed as a monk of that monastery. It is worth noting that this was the very house of which Savonarola had been the prior.’ [17]

Already by 1504, however, Michael had abandoned the Order. Though vague about his reasons, in a letter to a friend ‘he compared himself to a ship tossed by the waves in the midst of the sea, and begged for help in his present affliction’. In 1505 or 1506, he became a monk at Vatopaidi Monastery on the Holy Mountain and was ‘back in the Church of his fathers’. Many Greeks at the time had in Obolensky’s words a ‘tolerant attitude towards the Latin Church’, but this was not true of Vatopaidi, ‘where a harsher attitude towards the Latins prevailed’. [18] Obolensky writes:

In his Russian writings Maximos severely criticized several Latin beliefs and practices, which he roundly denounced as heretical. Foremost among them was the doctrine of the Filioque, the major bone of theological contention between the Greek and Latin Churches since the ninth century. The other major issue, the claims of the papacy to exercise direct and universal jurisdiction throughout the Christian Church, is touched upon more lightly by Maximos. Most of his strictures are directed at what he considered to be the popes’ arrogant desire to extend their own power. On the whole, Maximos’s criticism of the Latin Church was measured and courteous, and lacked the emotional overtones of the anti-Latin pronouncements of many of his contemporaries, Greek and Russian. [19]

I surmised in last year’s post that St Maximus had gone to the Holy Mountain wanting ‘something more than worldly learning and glory’, and this is no doubt true, but when I wrote those words I was ignorant of his two years as a Dominican. In the Order of Preachers, and particularly in the priory of Savonarola, he had presumably already sought something more than these. To go to the Holy Mountain, St Maximus must also have wanted the Orthodox Faith and, perhaps, the Eastern tradition of unceasing prayer.

While noting that St Maximus’s ten or so years on the Holy Mountain are ‘the least well documented’ of his life, Obolensky writes about them at some length:

A few writings by him have survived from this period, mostly Greek epitaphs in verse. They are distinguished by elegance of form and a liking for classical imagery. On a deeper level, there is no doubt that on Mount Athos Maximos immersed himself in Byzantine literature, both religious and secular. . . . It was almost certainly in Vatopedi that Maximos studied in depth the works of John of Damascus, the Byzantine theologian who seems to have been the most congenial to him, and whom he later described as having reached ‘the summit of philosophy and theology’. Among the early Fathers Gregory of Nazianzus appears to have been his favourite. Of the secular Byzantine works, the one he used, and translated most frequently in Russia, was the encyclopædia known today as Suda and formerly believed to have been written by a certain Suidas. [20]

. . . To judge from his later Russian writings, he was fully aware, from a strictly orthodox standpoint, of the pitfalls of Platonism; and he explicitly rejected some of Plato’s teachings, such as the belief he ascribed to him in the coeternity of God and the world. Maximos’s views on the relationship of faith to knowledge were unimpeachably orthodox. ‘Do not think’, he wrote in Russia, ‘that I condemn all external [i.e. secular] learning that is useful . . . I am not so ungrateful a student of this learning. Although I did not long remain on its threshold, yet I condemn those who pursue it through excessive rational inquiry.’ . . . [21]

To conclude this lengthy addendum to my earlier post, it is interesting to note the words of a man who must have known St Maximus well during this period. In a letter to Tsar Vasili III, St Maximus’s own abbot at Vatopaidi refers to him as ‘our most honourable brother Maximos . . . , proficient in divine Scripture and adept in interpreting all kinds of books, both ecclesiastical and those called Hellenic [i.e. secular], because from his early youth he has grown up in them and learned [to understand] them through the practice of virtue, and not simply by reading them often, as others do.’ [22]

As I have mentioned, there is not much material in English on St Maximus. A kind reader by the name of Symeon pointed out the Obolensky book to me last year, as well as the ‘unfortunately very scarce’ (and thus, prohibitively expensive) study by Jack V. Haney, From Italy to Muscovy: The Life and Works of Maxim the Greek, according to Obolensky ‘the only book in English on Maxim’. [23] I know of at least one book on him in Greek—Άγιος Μάξιμος ο Γραίκος ο Φωτιστής των Ρωσών [St Maximus the Greek, the Enlightener of the Russians], by the Holy Monastery of Gregoriou, Mt Athos, which contains an introduction, a Life, and a brief anthology of some of his writings translated into Modern Greek. [24] On the Internet there are a few things. In English, there is the short Life at the DC cathedral website (here), as well as this article on discovery of his fragrant remains in 1996. In Greek, there is this brief Life and this longer one (from the Vatopaidi Synaxarion) at the Vatopaidi blog. There is a blog devoted to him in Russian (here), the most recent post of which—as of today—links to a fascinating sort of dictionary of names written by the Saint (here). There is also a website in Russian (here), which contains a long Life, links to his works in Russian, plus a canon to the Saint in Slavonic and two lengthy prayers of the sort printed at the end of Akathists, as well as a megalynarion. Perhaps next year I will have translated some of the Saint’s writings from Modern Greek, or I could post more on his Russian career. Who knows? Perhaps some holy person will even send me a copy of Haney’s book!

In conclusion, I offer the (rather wordy) Russian Troparion and Kontakion of the Saint: [25]

Troparion Tone 8

Made brilliant by the radiance of the Spirit, through divine wisdom thou wast vouchsafed the intelligence of the rhetors, enlightening with the light of piety the hearts of men, which were darkened by ignorance; and thou was shown to be a most splendid lamp of Orthodox, O venerable Maximus. Wherefore, having become a stranger and wanderer in thy zeal for Him Who seeth all things, thou was a sojourner in the land of Russia, suffering imprisonment and incarceration at the command of the sovereign; yet thou art crowned by the right hand of the Most High, and workest all-glorious miracles. Be thou also a true mediator for us who honor thy holy memory with love.

Kontakion Tone 8

With divinely inspired writings and the preaching of theology didst thou denounce the vanity of the heretics, O thou who art most rich; and establishing them firmly in Orthodoxy, thou didst guide them to the path of true understanding. And like a divinely melodious harp thou didst delight and unceasingly gladden the minds of those who hearkened unto thee, O right wondrous Maximus. Wherefore, we beseech thee: Entreat Christ God, that He send down remission of sins upon those who with faith hymn thy most holy dormition O Maximus our father.

[1] According to the title of Άγιος Μάξιμος ο Γραίκος ο Φωτιστής των Ρωσών, by the Holy Monastery of Gregoriou, Mt Athos (Athens: Armos, 1991).

[2] Pierre Kovalevsky, St Sergius & Russian Spirituality, trans. W. Elias Jones (Crestwood, NY: 1976), p. 142.

[3] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 83.

[4] Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Six Byzantine Portraits (Oxford: Oxford U, 1999), pp. 201-19.

[5] It is worth noting that what Obolensky says here is true, not only of Western scholarly publications, but even of the Vatopaidi Synaxarion (Monk Moses Agioreites, Βατοπαιδινό Συναξάρι [Mt Athos: Vatopaidi Monastery, 2007]) and the book mentioned in note 1 written by the Fathers of Gregoriou Monastery on the Holy Mountain (see for example Άγιος Μάξιμος, pp. 17-18).

[6] Obolensky, p. 202.

[7] [Ibid., p. 202.

[8] L.D. Reynolds & N.G. Wilson, Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford U, 1974), p. 154.

[9] Paul Oskar Kristeller, Renaissance Thought & Its Sources, ed. Michael Mooney (NY: Columbia U, 1979), p. 58.

[10] Obolensky, p. 203. Concerning this last point, Obolensky later notes that St Maximus ‘unfavourably’ compared the ‘Possessing’ monks of 16th-c. Russia ‘with the Carthusians, Franciscans, and Dominicans he had known in Italy, who led a life of dedicated poverty’ (ibid., p. 216).

[11] Reynolds & Wilson, p. 138.

[12] Obolensky, p. 204.

[13] Ibid., p. 204.

[14] Dennis F. Lackner, ‘The Camaldolese Academy: Ambrogio Traversari, Marsilio Ficino & the Christian Platonic Tradition’, Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy, ed. Michael J.B. Allen & Valery Rees, with Martin Davies (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 43. Lackner’s article is a fascinating one, and its author a friendly fellow. He actually e-mailed me with compliments on this post on St Romuald, wherein I first made use of his article. He also graciously forgave me for misattributing it!

[15] Obolensky, p. 204. Concerning this Pico’s uncle, Russell Kirk has referred to his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man as ‘the most succinct expression of the mind of the Renaissance’ (‘Introduction’, Oration on the Dignity of Man, by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, tr. A. Robert Caponigri [Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1956], p. xi).

[16] Obolensky, p. 204.

[17] Ibid., p. 205.

[18] Ibid., p. 205

[19] Ibid., pp. 205-6.

[20] Ibid., p. 206.

[21] Ibid., p. 207.

[22] Qtd. in ibid., p. 208

[23] Ibid., p. 210.

[24] See note 1. Interestingly, among St Maximus’s writings included here is a ‘Discourse to Those who Want to Leave Their Spouses without a Legitimate Reason & Enter the Monastic Life’ (Άγιος Μάξιμος, pp. 150-3)!

[25] These hymns, from the Menaion translated from the Slavonic by Reader Isaac Lambertsen and published by St John of Kronstadt Press, were posted by Fr David Moser here. In Greek, there is a different set of hymns, which can be found here.


aaronandbrighid said...

I don't know if anyone noticed, but this post was up for several hours with an interesting typo in place: 'St Dimitri Obolensky'. It's now been corrected!

Matthew said...

I was just reading about St. Maximus the other day in the book Russian Mystics by Sergius Bolshakoff, but there was only a few paragraphs. I'll have to make reading Obolensky's Portraits a higher priority.

On the subject of books in Greek, Bulshakoff notes that "the most exhaustive work on Maximus the Greek" is G. Papamichael, Maximos Graikos, which was published in Athens in 1951.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for mentioning that. It didn't even occur to me to look for other books mentioned in the Gregoriou volume, but I see they've cited that one, another of the same year called Maximos o Graikos o protos photistis ton Roson, plus an earlier book by Papamichael called I prosopikotis Maximou tou Graikou, 'The personality of Maximus the Greek'. Unfortunately though, while they do have a list of the works of St Maximus, the Gregoriou book does not have a bibliography of secondary sources.

The Ochlophobist said...

The Haney volume is available here:


Perhaps some kind benefactor could purchase it and send it to Aaron.

Since my reading concerning Sts. Nil and Joseph last year, and discovering the defense of the legacy of Nil and skete monasticism by St. Maxim. I think St. Maxim may be my favorite saint in the Russian tradition. If for no other reason, that beard on the icon you posted last year may be the best in Orthodox iconography.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yeah, St Maxim is definitely extremely cool. I like how the beard covers his entire upper torso like a massive bib.

David.R said...

St Maximos the Greek is one of my favorite saints.
You name many sources on his life I did not know about. 'Six Byzantine Portraits' sounds very interesting. I guess some book shopping is overdue. Thanks.

David.R said...

I should mention that in the book 'Evlogite', Mother Nectaria Mclees offers a 6 page summary of the life of St Maximos, p.108-114, when she describes her visit to Arta, Greece. Arta is the birth place of St Maximos. In 1997 the Moscow Patriarchate sent relics to Arta which are now enshrined and available for veneration in the Church of St George at #13 Skoyfa street.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for pointing this out, David. I've looked at Evlogite before, and read and used parts of it, but never seen the chapter on Arta before. Does she mention the Dominican thing by any chance?

David.R said...

Hi Aaron:
Welcome back! I hope we get a full report on your trip:-)
Yes, St Maximos brief excursion into Roman Catholicism (he received monastic tonsure as a Dominican)is mentioned in page 109 of Evlogite.
We are told also that it was John Lascares who turned Michael's (St Maximos) attention back to the east, and who encouraged him to go to Vatopaidi.

aaronandbrighid said...

Huh, I wonder where she got that from? Does she cite any sources? Obolensky acts as though there's no evidence at all about why he went to Vatopaidi.

David.R said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David.R said...

Mother Nectaria does not say. She includes Obolensky's book in her bibliography and acknowledges that this detail is not in the hagiography. Mother Nectaria then says that "but we do know it was John Lascares...etc."

aaronandbrighid said...

Interesting. I might have to get in touch with her. I'll also have to have a more careful look at the Greek bio I have and see if it's touched upon there.