14 October 2009

'Earliest First-fruit of Beautiful Hymns'—St Romanus the Melodist

Today, 1 October on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Romanus the Melodist (c. 490-c. 556). Egon Wellesz calls St Romanus ‘the outstanding figure in Byzantine hymnography’, writing, ‘His fame was, indeed, so great that he was considered the paramount Melodos, and more Kontakia than he wrote were ascribed to him in order to heighten their value’ (A History of Byzantine Music and Hymnography, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford U, 1971], p. 190). According to Fr Andrew Louth, he ‘is perhaps the most famous liturgical poet of the Orthodox Church, but his genius is such as to command a place among the highest ranks of poets, religious or secular, so that he has been called by Professor Trypanis “the greatest poet of the Greek middle ages”’ (‘An Invitation to the Christian Mystery’, Kontakia on the Life of Christ, by St Romanus the Melodist, trans. Archim. Ephrem [Lash] [SF: HarperCollins, n.d.], p. xv). In the words of Fr Ephrem (Lash), St Romanus’s work forms ‘one of the great treasures of Christian poetry and of Byzantine Greek literature’ (Kontakia, p. xxvi). Finally, Wellesz points out that on St Romanus’s feast, the Church praises him ‘as “the first origin of the beautiful chants”, “the father” of hymnographers, the composer of “angelic hymnody”’ (Wellesz, p. 7), and later (on p. 182), Wellesz quotes the hymn in question in full:

Earliest first-fruit of beautiful (hymns),
thou wast manifested a means of salvation,
Romanus our father,
composing the angelic hymnody,
thou hast shown thy conversation [τὴν πολιτείαν σου] meet for God.

Fr Ephrem tells us that St Romanus ‘was of Semitic, quite possibly Jewish, ancestry’ (p. xxvi). He was born in the town of Emesa in Syria, and was made a deacon at Berytus (modern Beirut), before settling in Constantinople at the Theotokos Church ‘in the comparatively quiet and secluded district of Kyros (modern Hexi-Marmara), in the north of the city’ (Fr Ephrem, p. xxvi). According to tradition, St Romanus was uneducated and not a terribly good chanter, and was sometimes mocked by the other clergy and chanters for this. Fr Ephrem quotes a 10th-c. account of what happened to make him ‘the Melodist’ (p. xvii; see also the account at Orthodox America):

It was in this church [the Theotokos Church] that he received the gift of composing kontakia when the holy Mother of God appeared to him in a dream during the evening of Christ’s Nativity [i.e. during the Vigil on the eve] and gave him a scroll and ordered him to swallow it. After he had swallowed it he at once awoke from his trance and having mounted the ambo, began to declaim and chant most melodiously, ‘Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being’. From then on he delivered around one thousand kontakia for the feasts of the Lord and the commemorations of various saints. Many of them are preserved in the church in the district of Kyros, set down in his own hand. He attained perfection in peace and was buried in the same church, in which his synaxis is also celebrated.

On p. xv of his Preface to Fr Ephrem’s translation of St Romanus, Fr Louth notes the striking similarity of the story of St Romanus’s miraculous gift of poetry to that of St Cædmon of Whitby (on whom see this post) as told in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. It is an amazing illustration of the great unity of the lives of the Orthodox Saints, East and West, who have known and experienced the very same Truth.

On the subject of the kontakion in general, and of St Romanus’s Nativity kontakion in particular, see this post. To what I have said there I will only add two things. First, Wellesz makes an interesting point about St Romanus’s treatment of the great figures of the Classical age. First, Wellesz cites some lines from the Kontakion on Pentecost, which I shall give in Fr Ephrem’s translation (pp. 215-6), where the Melodist employs a series of untranslateable puns on the names of several well-known pagan authors:


. . .

Why do the Greeks puff and buzz?
Why are they deceived by Aratos the thrice accursed? Why err like wandering planets to Plato?
Why do they love debilitated Demosthenes?
Why do they not consider Homer a chimera?
Why do they go on about Pythagoras, who were better muzzled?
Why do they not run believing to those to whom has appeared the All-Holy Spirit?


Brothers, let us sing the praise of the tongues of the disciples because, not with elegant words,
but with divine power they caught all mortals in their nets . . .

On this, Wellesz comments:

Romanus, in his revolt against the greatest minds of the Classical world, is not unaware of their greatness. But it must be remembered that he does not address his audience as a rhetorician but as a preacher speaking from the pulpit, like his predecessors the three Cappadocians or John Chrysostom. Like the latter he contrasts the Christian ideas and ideals with those of the Greek thinkers, orators, and poets, and tries to create in the minds of his audience appreciation of the divine truth, conveyed by the words of the Apostle, which Romanus takes from the Gospel and paraphrases in a diction no less poetical than that of the greatest classical authors. (p. 190)

Second, in his Preface to the Kontakia, Fr Louth makes an observation about St Romanus’s kontakia that is neatly consonant with his concerns in Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day, 2007), which I am currently reading for the first time:

This is perhaps the biggest difference, in the use of imagery found in Romanos and the Fathers, from what is characteristic of modern secularized Western Christianity: a confident use of what is sometimes called allegory as a way of setting the Christian mystery against the background of the ‘many and various ways’ in which ‘God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets’ (Heb 1:1). It lends richness to the patristic expression of the Christian mystery and makes vivid a sense of the Church as the people of God reaching back across the ages, so that we approach the mystery of Christ in the company of Moses, Elias, Isaias and the other prophets and patriarchs, as well as in the company of the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Church, including Romanos himself. (Kontakia, p. xix)

St Romanus is traditionally depicted chanting in the centre of icons of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos, but this is because the latter event occurred on his feast day (in the year 911), and not because he was physically present as a matter of historical record. The article in Orthodox America notes:

Because Saint Romanos is commemorated on the same day as the feast of Protection, he commonly appears as a central figure in the icon of that feast, even though there is no historical connection (the event celebrated by the Protection icon occurred in the tenth century). Although in more recent icons Saint Romanos is depicted as a deacon standing on the ambo, Russian church musicologist Johann von Gardner points out that in the oldest icons he is more accurately portrayed wearing the short red tunic of a singer and standing on a raised platform in the middle of the church.

In conclusion, here is the Kontakion in Tone 8 for St Romanus, taken from the Holy Trinity calendar page:

Adorned from childhood with the godly virtues of the Spirit, O all-wise Romanus, thou wast an all-precious adornment of the Church of Christ; for thou hast adorned it with all-beauteous hymnody. Wherefore, we entreat thee: Grant thy divine gift unto those who desire it, that we may cry out to thee: Rejoice, O all-blessed father, thou beauty of the Church!


protov said...

It is interesting indeed that the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God is celebrated with much more pomp in Russia than in Greece, although it celebrates the defeat of the Rus fleet in the waters of Constantinople. It was in fact the first shock that drew the Varangian Rus to Pravoslavia.

St. Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church said...

It's always delighted me that St Romanus is depicted in the Pokrov icon. Glorious. Absolutely glorious!

- Fr Mark

Anonymous said...

Wonderful and fascinating post, Aaron. In particular I found the Saint's writings on those famous Greeks to be of great interest!

However I would like to ask you about the translation in English of the name "Romanus". Now right off the bat, I would assume it would be "Roman", in the same sense as Innocentius is written as "Innocent". Another thing I noticed is that most names that end in Latin with "anus" lose the "us" part in English; I'm think of names such as Cyprian, Justinian, Demetrian, Flavian, Urban etc.. What would your opinion be?

aaronandbrighid said...

Andrew> I think you're right, and ordinarily I would have followed this convention, which as you note seems to be well established in the Anglicisation of Greek or Latin names. But he is so commonly known in Anglophone Orthodoxy as 'Romanus' or 'Romanos' (all of my sources use one of these) that I was afraid it would be too contrarian or idiosyncratic to use 'Roman'.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your response, Aaron. I understand what you mean. I just really wanted your feedback in particular, because I noticed you are excellent with translating names, and I wanted to make sure I was on the right track with this one!