Monday, October 20, 2014

Romanos the Melodist and the Parables (part 1)

Romanos the Melodist

Many people have never heard of Romanos the Melodist (ca. 485-555), but his voice is another extremely important one in the early church that I will highlight in the book.

Romanos is the greatest Byzantine liturgical poet and hymn writer—some argue that he is perhaps the most famous liturgical poet of the Orthodox Church—and, as such, was often called the “Christian Pindar” (Trypanis 1971: liii). Romanos was born in Emesa (Syria), was educated and became a deacon in Beirut, and later moved to Constantinople, where he spent most of his life serving the church during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Beyond those few details, little else is known about Romanos other than his creation, according to tradition, of around thousand kontakia (although only approximately eighty-nine extant kontakia are attributed to him, and probably only around sixty of them are authentic). A kontakion is a chanted sermon that combines dramatic dialogue and theological teachings (Hastings 1999: 70). Such kontakia consist of at least one prelude and usually between thirteen and twenty-four stanzas (each called an ikos) in the same meter; each stanza ends with the same refrain. Kontakia encourage participation from the congregation both in form and content (Lash 1995: xv-xxix). Only the texts of these kontakia survive; the accompanying music has not.

According to church tradition, Romanos received the spiritual gift of composing kontakia during a dream he had of the Virgin Mary. Mary gave him a scroll, told him to swallow it, and when he awoke from his trance began to chant his first kontakion, which was about the Nativity of Jesus (Lash 1995: xxvii). An analysis of the authentic Romanos kontakia, however, reveals the influence of hymns by Ephrem the Syrian (Benedetto 2008: 577), as well as earlier Greek sermons and other sources (see Lash 1995: 240-261).  

My next two posts will be about Romanos's interpretation of the Prodigal Son parable.

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