Byzantine Chant Term Paper
Written By: Kathleen McElroy
Grade: 11th Grade
Teacher: Mr. Gabriel Cremeens
Class: Byzantine Chant
Issue: Set to Appear in the January Issue of the Newsletter
Brothers in Christ, Fathers of the Canon: St. John of Damascus and St. Cosmas the Hymnographer
St. John of Damascus and St. Cosmas the Hymnographer are present in every service we sing. When we chant, “It is truly honorable to glorify you, O Theotokos” we proclaim St. Cosmas’ praise for the Mother of God. If someone has passed away and we sing the funeral hymns, we will probably sing something written by St. John. Anything in one of the eight modes? All eight were organized by, again, St. John. Who were these holy men? And how did they work together so closely?
St. John was born in the Muslim capital of Damascus to Sergius Mansour, a wealthy, prominent government official. Besides his work for the Caliph, Sergius was also a devout Christian and adopted St. Cosmas as a young orphan, raising him as his own. The two brothers loved one another and grew in holiness and wisdom. This was aided by Kosmas the Foreigner, an elderly monk thrown into slavery whom Sergius bought for his sons as a teacher. Kosmas the Foreigner instructed the saints in theology, astronomy, music, geometry, writing, philosophy, and more. St. John and St. Cosmas were unusually intelligent and learned quickly and well until Kosmas the Foreigner informed Sergius that he could teach the young men nothing more. He requested freedom to leave for the monastery of Mar Sabba in Jerusalem. It was granted. Soon after, Sergius Mansour reposed and St. John took up his father’s post as a magistrate, and due to his great wisdom was quickly promoted to personal assistant of the Caliph.
At that time Iconoclasm was a popular heresy, especially in Muslim states such as Damascus. St. John lived outside the city itself and enjoyed particular protection with his post as personal assistant to the Caliph. He used this freedom to write constantly against Iconoclasm.
‘I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter…who deigned to inhibit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.’ (St. John of Damascus, On Divine Images)
However, he did not have complete safety in this bold stance. The Byzantine Emperor Leo, tired of St. John’s interference, had the saint framed for treason through forgery. The Caliph, shocked and enraged, had St. John’s right hand cut off and displayed publicly. The hand was returned to him at the end of the day and St. John went home and prayed to the Theotokos, telling her he needed his hand to write for her defense. She healed him that very night while he slept. St. John showed the Caliph his newly-healed hand the next morning, accepted the Caliph’s apology, but refused his old position. He had tired of political intrigue and wished to go to Mar Sabba with his brother, Cosmas. The brothers departed for Jerusalem soon after.
The brothers lived in peace for many years at the monastery, writing hymns together. The two brothers codified the eight modes and wrote alternating parts of several canons. (The Christmas canon being the most famous) While St. John and St. Cosmas were both prolific and widely known hymnographers, St. Cosmas was especially well-respected for his poetic talent. St. Cosmas also enjoyed writing commentary on other works, such as St. Gregory the Theologian’s poems. His wisdom and holiness did not go unnoticed and he was appointed the Bishop of Maiuma in 743, having to leave the monastery for his new diocese. While there, he wrote several more hymns for the services, such as the canons for Pentecost, The Exaltation, and Palm Sunday. One Holy Friday, St. Cosmas received a vision of the Theotokos, immediately after which he wrote Axion Estin (It Is Truly Right). Axion Estin has survived through the centuries and is used in almost every regular service of the church. During all this, St. Cosmas directed his diocese well and was loved by his community all throughout his long life.
St. John and St. Cosmas were like two birds. Each one had a particular tune and flew around, spreading it through the world as God intended, but when they perched on the same branch to sing together the beauty of each one’s song increased. They pushed each other first to learn, then to apply that learning out in the world for the defense of icons, next in the monastery to write music for the glory of God. Not just simple hymns they shared with each other or their spiritual children; the saints provided Christians with many powerful, beautiful prayers and multiple modes for singing them. Just glancing over “It is Truly Right” one feels St. Cosmas’ deep love for the Theotokos centuries after it was written. It seems as if I can almost see his awed gaze upon her icon when I sing it now that I know the story behind it. Recently, St. John’s writings on iconoclasm were used to explain the icons at my church to a confused teenager, and she quickly developed a respect for them. These saints were so full of love for all that is holy that we still use the fruits of their devotion roughly thirteen centuries later. Today, they rejoice in heaven, singing to God with all their hearts, their voices intertwining even more beautifully than they did on earth.
Damascene, John, St. unknown original release, On The Divine Images, unknown page number
Byzantine Chant Year 1 Class recordings 10/11/2018 and 11/29/2018
Life of St. Cosmas PDF
Life of St. John of Damascus PDF