From her earliest centuries, the Christian Church has used iconography and hymnography much the same. Both are artistic media bound within the frames of dogma that communicate a sacred curriculum to the faithful by engaging two of the five senses, allowing the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Icon painters, like hymnographers, are rarely original in their exegesis. They are interpreters of Scripture and bearers of tradition, using their artistic skill to convey that tradition to fullness of the Church in a form that is memorable and compelling. Ultimately, writers of hymns and painters of icons communicate what they have seen or heard of the Triune God in a revelatory moment, bearing in mind the place for which the artistic expressions are destined—divine services and the house of worship. In this respect, hymns are a reflection of the songs of praise sung by the angels while icons reveal the image of the saints in their super essential existence in heaven.”
Through the rituals celebrated in the Church proper, which combine sight and sound, Holy Tradition is made readily available to every churchgoer in a way that systematic commentaries are not. Ultimately, hymnography and iconography teach humanity about God’s plan for His Creation and our return to Eden. When speaking of Orthodox hymnography, St. Gregory Palamas concludes, “All who are attuned to sacred songs and study their meaning from beginning to end will find themselves approaching God.”
If singing, studying and listening to sacred songs has the ability to move us closer to God as Gregory in fact suggests, then we are extremely blesses as nearly ¾ of Orthodox worship consists of hymns. It’s no wonder that Chrysostom urged his hearers not only to sing hymns of praise themselves, but to teach their spouses and children to sing them too; not only during their work but at meals as well. He explains:
“For nobody would fail to call a gathering a church, where there are psalms, and prayers and dances of the prophets, and God-loving thoughts in the singers. …No charge will be made against anybody for the way he sings, whether he be old or young, hoarse, or even lacking rhythm. What is required here is an uplifted soul, a watchful mind, a contrite heart, a powerful reasoning, a purified conscience. If you enter the holy choir of God possessing these, you will be able to stand next to David.”
In another instance, Chrysostom unites the songs of the earth, that is the Church, with the song of the heavens:
“Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the seraphim cry out in the thrice-holy hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus.”
A few centuries prior to Chrysostom during the Apostolic age, “Christians…were accustomed to the singing of hymns from their worship in the Synagogue.” Logically, these hymns “…acquired for [Christians] a greater significance as a thanksgiving for the fulfillment of the Messianic prophesies.” In addition to this Jewish treasury of psalms and hymns, new hymns were modeled on patterns known to the Christian community from the Jewish Service. Later on, when Christians came into closer touch with the surrounding pagan civilization, a new type of hymn was added, modeled on Hellenistic pagan poetry.
Whether modeled after Jewish hymns or pagan poetry, the Byzantine hymn writer directed his mind toward the Divine, contemplating the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate conception, the Nativity, the Life, Passion, and Resurrection of the Lord, the Acts of the Apostles, the deeds and martyrdoms of the saints, working with the limits prescribed by the dogma and the requirements of the Liturgy. Professor Savas Savas of blessed memory similarly explains, “The Triptych of concern for the church hymnographers is the mystery of Divine Economy, Man, and his Salvation; it is from these three realities that the hymnographers draw the pious and artistic displays in order to create beautiful form and content of hymns.”
He continues, “Christians, at the time of their worship of the Divine, sing of their salvation. Christians in these lyrical hymns of the Church, praise God, glorify His Magnificence, express their gratitude to Him and seek His Compassion. At other times, these hymns unequivocally declare the great dogmatic truths, relate the wondrous achievements of the Martyrs of the Faith, become deeply passionate in their love of God, and place in Him their pain, problems, and aspirations.” It is for these reasons that by the end of the sixth century, the Council of Braga would exclude from liturgical services hymns, which were not based on Scripture.
The Christmas Poet par excellence is St. Romanos the Melodist. A deacon of the 6th Century Church in Constantinople, the “miracle of [his] poetry resulted from a fusion of Romanos’ faith, imagination, and art, from the long, lonely hours of writing in the peace of his monastic cell, and ultimately from his love and trust in his muse, the Mother of God and of sacred poets.” He is depicted in his icon wearing a white robe and holding in his hands a scroll on which is written the first line to the Christmas Kontakion, “Today the Virgin comes to the cave…”
This hymn is so remarkable that it is even attached to the miracle:
Saint Romanos the Melodist was born in the fifth century in the Syrian city of Emesa of Jewish parents. After moving to Constantinople, he became a church sacristan in the temple of Hagia Sophia. The monk spent his nights alone at prayer in a field or in the Blachernae church beyond the city.
St Romanos was not a talented reader or singer. Once, on the eve of the Nativity of Christ, he read the kathisma verses. He read so poorly that another reader had to take his place. The clergy ridiculed Romanos, which devastated him.
On the day of the Nativity, the Mother of God appeared to the grief-stricken youth in a vision while he was praying before her Kyriotissa icon. She gave him a scroll and commanded him to eat it. Thus was he given the gift of understanding, composition, and hymnography. That evening at the all-night Vigil St Romanos sang, in a wondrous voice, his first Kontakion:
Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.
For his zealous service St Romanos was ordained as a deacon and became a teacher of song. Until his death, which occurred about the year 556, the Deacon Romanos the Melodist composed nearly a thousand hymns, many of which are still used by Christians to glorify the Lord.
When his kontakia or for that matter any sacred song is chanted in Divine Services, the words must be prayerfully contemplated by each of us; again, in accordance with St. Gregory, for this is the means by which we draw near to God. Similarly, when it comes time to sing a hymn, each and every one of us should open our mouths and sing. Not only is it a blessing to have such sacred poetry flow from our lips, as St. John has reminded us, “those who sing,” according to St. Augustine, “pray twice” since we add a further dimension of honor and praise to these hymns.
I therefore close this lesson on hymnography with the words of St John Chrysostom since singing great hymns is as critical for today’s Christian as it was for the fourth century church:
Sing! Sing psalms [and hymns] that purify the mind and [allow] the Holy Spirit to descend swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.