The following pages contain Canons from the office of Matins and other services. They are collected under the names of writers, even though many of the attributions may be uncertain, so that readers may more easily study the theology and style of the individual hymn writers of the Church.
These Canons are for the most part the work of the great hymn writers of the seventh and eighth centuries. Most of them were monks and came from three main areas of the Byzantine world: that centred on the monastery of St Sabbas, near Bethlehem; the Studite monastery of St John the Baptist in Constantinople, and Magna Graecia, that is Sicily and Southern Italy, notably the monastery of Grottaferrata. St Sabbas and Grottaferrata are still active monasteries, even if the latter is now Greek Catholic, but the Studite monastery is a neglected ruin in a run down quarter of Istanbul.
Of the three books mentioned above, the Paraklitiki, or Large Oktoichos, is the bread and butter book, providing the material for Vespers, the Midnight Office, Matins and the Liturgy for most of the year from the Sunday of All Saints to the beginning of Lent. Many of its texts are also found in the Pentecostarion. Apart from the canons at Matins, few of the texts have the names of the authors attached to them and so this paper will confine itself to the canons. The canons for Sundays are, in the main, the work of St John of Damascus [c.675c.750] and St Metrophanes of Smyrna [9th century], who wrote the canons in honour of the Trinity for the Sunday Midnight Office. The weekday offices are principally the work of St Joseph the Hymnographer , who wrote at least fifty-six of the ninety six canons for weekdays. The next major contributor was St Theophanes the Branded , whose contribution amounts to at least nine and possibly as many as twenty-three canons. The accompanying table gives the full statistics.
A canon is a highly structured and disciplined literary form; an icon in words rather than paint. What I want to draw your attention to in particular is the skill of the poets in bringing together a number of different themes and ideas within this highly formal pattern. Each ode is linked to one of the biblical canticles between the verses of which the troparia of the canon are meant to be sung, as they still are on the Holy Mountain. Each troparion of an ode follows with considerable strictness the metrical scheme of the Irmos, which is not necessarily by the writer of the canon. The metrical scheme is based on stress accents, not on quantity, as in classical Greek and Latin poetry. Earlier writers, like St Gregory the Theologian, had made experiments with classical metres, but these met with little success, and from the golden age of the kontakion in the sixth century, the use of metrical schemes based on stress had prevailed. One other method had been tried, that of strict isosyllabic metres as in Syriac poetry. This seems to have been limited to the unknown poet, or poets, who translated St Ephrem the Syrian into Greek and also composed verse sermons in imitation of him.
Each day of the week has a particular theme, which the canon must develop. The theme of the office on Mondays and Tuesdays is compunction; on Wednesday the Cross; on Thursdays the Apostles; on Friday the Cross, and on Saturday the Saints. Each day, moreover has a secondary theme: on Monday the Angels, Tuesday St John the Baptist, Wednesday and Friday the Mother of God, Thursday St Nicolas and Saturday the Departed. These secondary themes are celebrated the second canon. In addition, the first canon each day must include two troparia in honour of the Martyrs. The final troparion of every canon honours the Mother of God.
I have seldom attempted the reproduce the acrostics that are a standard feature of so many canons. Where I have done so, I have indicated this typographically.
With the exception of the Canon of the Little Paraklesis, none of the texts on these pages has been translated to the strict metrical patterns of the originals.
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This page was last updated on 03 November 2008