The Great Rhetor

George of Nicomedia: Convention and Originality in the Homily on Good Friday

by Niki Tsironis


In the present paper I will examine the models used by George of Nicomedia for the composition of his homily on Good Friday, the first homily which has come down to us that treats the subject from a mariological point of view. George of Nicomedia elaborates on the passage from the Gospel of St John (20:25): ‘Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas and Mary Magdalene’. The events of the Crucifixion are related through the eyes of the Virgin, who follows Christ from the court of Annas and Caiaphas to Calvary where He is crucified. The last part of the homily is devoted to the Deposition and Burial of the Lord. The homily of George of Nicomedia is characterised by a distinct dramatisation of the events related and by the extensive use of monologue and dialogue. These are the elements that I will try to trace back in the homiletic and hymnographic tradition of the Eastern Church until the 9th century. George wrote most of his homilies on the occasion of the feasts of the Mother of God. Although it can be attributed to an accident of the manuscript tradition the practice of focusing on an individual subject of interest was not unusual in the Byzantine homiletic tradition(1). The preoccupation of the author with the Mother of God implies a theological interest that is expressed in his mariology. However, here I will refrain from developing mariological points and I will only examine texts that could have been used by the homilist for the composition of his work.

To my knowledge there is no single homily that can be proposed as George’s sole, immediate source. The ‘invention’ of the theme of the lamentation of the Mother of God at the foot of the cross is found in the hymnographical tradition. The methodological problem that one faces when studying the hymns of the Orthodox Church is that, apart from a few hymns whose authorship is attested, the great majority of the liturgical texts are either unattributed and undated or —even worse— attributed incorrectly. Hymns, like icons, were important in themselves and the composers were not supposed to sign them, just like the artists who were not supposed to sign their icons. The problem is relevant to the subject because of the existence of a hymnographical text, the Lament of the Mother of God, which is read even today in the Eastern Church as part of the service of the Burial of the Lord. This text reproduces almost verbatim passages of the homily in question. Although its dating is uncertain, liturgiologists tend to consider it a composition that was incorporated in the service books towards the end of the middle Byzantine period, or even later(2). Let me now turn to the background of Marian devotion in order to trace the development of the theme.

Although very little is written about the Virgin either in the Gospel or in the Acts of the Apostles(3) it is clear that at every single stage of the development of Orthodox theology in Byzantium, the Mother of God preoccupied the Fathers and was made a model of behaviour. At the same time the faithful saw in her the human, yet, God-bearer protectress and mediatrix(4). Basil the Great portrays the Mother of God as the protectress of virgins(5), of whom she becomes an archetype. Of the Cappadocian Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa worked most of all on the establishment of the typological references(6) of the Mother of God. The importance of homiletics for the formulation of doctrine as the establishment of the living experience of the Church may be attested in the example of the homily delivered by Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the presence of his adversary Nestorius, in the great church of Haghia Sophia, in 428 or 429, in which the Virgin is referred to as the All-Holy and Ever-Virgin Theotokos, the Mother of God(7).

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Let us now turn to the hymnography where the subject of the lament of the Virgin at the foot of the cross seems to appear for the first time. The celebrated hymnographer Ephrem the Syrian in a poem that was meant to be read during the Saturday vespers in Holy Week(8) elaborates the theme. In this hymn the Virgin approaches the cross and speaks to the Lord without expecting a response. It is a silent lamentation, and one of the first attempts to reveal the human aspect of the salvific mystery. In the Syriac hymn of Jacob of Sarug on the Dormition of the Mother of God we read: ‘Many sorrows has your mother borne for your sake, and all afflictions surrounded her at your crucifixion. How many sorrowing weeping and tears of suffering did not her eyes shed at your funeral… How many terrors did not the mother of Mercy experience when you were buried and the guards of the sepulchre turned her away, so that she could not approach you!’ In the homily of George of Nicomedia we read: ‘But who will enumerate the arrows that penetrated her heart at that time? Who will recount in words her pains that are beyond words?(11) He ineffable sorrow and pain of the Mother of God form the basic pattern upon which the events of Good Friday are recounted and each scene of the Passion of the Lord is introduced by a similar two-line exclamation.

Yet, the dialogue between the Mother of God and Jesus at the crucifixion, to our knowledge, was first used by Romanos the Melodos, the great 6th century Syrian hymnographer(11). His well-known hymn on Mary at the Foot of the Cross(12) is the only one to appear in the actual Triodion(13). The Mother of God pleads with him to address her a word of consolation: ‘.. Address me a word, Oh Word, do not pass in front of me in silence, you that preserved my purity, my son and my God’(14) In the relevant passage George of Nicomedia writes: ‘But you, say something as a farewell to your mother, … say a sweet and life-giving word’ and elsewhere: ‘They pierced the limbs of the one that has preserved my undefiled chastity, the one who has retained unblemished the seals of virginity and purity’(16)

The response of the Lord to his mother is also similar in the two texts; Romanos writes: ‘Alleviate, mother, alleviate your grief: lamentations are not worthy of you who has been called the one full of grace(17’) where in the text of George, Jesus replies: ‘Calm the excess of the more severe pains mother; remit the heaviest despondency in your heart, by the grandeur of the benefit..(18) But the Virgin is not consoled, despite the fact that the words of the Lord remind her of the reason he was sent to the world. The comparison of the two texts shows that George knew Romanos’ hymn and that he uses the technique of dialogue in a similar way in order to achieve a similar end.

During the 8th and 9th centuries numerous hymns were composed for the Mother of God: Theotokia were written in the Eight Tones and although we cannot be sure of the exact date of their introduction in the services of the Church, their existence marks a distinct phase in the development of Marian devotion. Their authors were the distinguished iconophile preachers and hymnographers Germanos of Constantinople (d.733), Andrew of Crete (d.740), John of Damascus (d.c. 749) and Theodore the Stoudite (d.826), to name only the most important among them.

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I have singled out the distinguished poet and patriarch of Constantinople, Germanos, for two reasons: the first is that George follows the style of his predecessor, both in the way of expression and in his treatment of the Mother of God. His admiration for the florid and elaborate style of Germanos lead him to the creation of his own embellished style of speech. The second is that in his homily On the Bodily Burial of the Lord on Holy Saturday(19), Germanos incorporates a lament of the Mother of God. After the eulogy of the feast that occupies the beginning of the sermon, Germanos dedicates the main part of his homily to the lament of the Mother of God, who voices her despair for the bereavement in short, rhythmical phrases. The prophecy of Symeon about the sword that would pierce her heart is interpreted not as doubt(20), but as the deplorable pain that ravages her heart. Her address to the Lord is reminiscent of the model of Ephrem the Syrian in that she expects no answer; but her lament is not ‘silent’. On the contrary it is similar to the laments of ancient Greek tragedy(21). The invitation to Nature and the world to participate in the wailing contrasts with the murmuring of sweet memories(22). An antithetical pattern is used in order to show the changing attitude of the Jews towards Jesus, who are addressed in a variety of terms that derive from the stock of the topoi of anti-Jewish polemic(23).

The treatment of the lament of the Mother of God by Germanos suggests that his work could have been used as a source by George of Nicomedia in the composition of his homily on Good Friday, although it has to be noted that neither dialogue nor dramatisation are fully explored by Germanos. However, he opened a way by introducing the subject of the lament, which as we have seen derives from the hymnographical tradition, to the domain of homiletics.

Finally I would like to refer briefly to the Theotokia written by Theodore, the abbot of the Stoudion monastery, which refer to the lament of the Mother of God at the Foot of the Cross. Very laconic, the Stavrotheotokia do not occupy more than a few lines. In the matins of the Friday in the first week of Lent the Stavrotheotokion reads: ‘Beholding Thee, ? Christ, stretched dead upon the Tree, Thy Virgin Mother cried aloud with bitter tears: “O my Son what is this fearful mystery ? How dost Thou who givest life eternal unto all, suffer willingly a shameful death upon the Cross; (24) Although George does not use the imagery of the Tree for the cross, the Virgin laments her dead son in the same way and the idea of the willing death of the Lord who gives life to the whole creation occurs regularly in the homily(25). The lamentation of the Virgin also appears in the Stavrotheotokion of the Vespers of Friday(26): the Mother of God together with the whole of creation wonders at the strange and marvellous sight of the crucified Lord. Nature is evoked in the lament of the Virgin in the homily on Good Friday: ‘Set sun, seeing my and the world’s light setting bodily. Shudder sky, and in your grievous appearance share my lament; mourn as you perceive the slaughter of the universal Lord.(27) George of Nicomedia offers an interesting example of a synthesis of the homiletic and the hymnographical tradition, combining his sources in order to achieve the dramatisation of the subject-matter which —we may well suppose— was the feature that enthralled his audience and earned him the title of ‘great rhetor’.


1. For example, Proclus in the 5th century and Germanos of Constantinople in the 8th century were known for their mariological homilies, whereas Leontius of Constantinople found particularly appealing the theme of Job. A characteristic example is his homily on Good Friday in which he links the subject to the story of Job. See Pauline Allen with Cornells Datema, Leontius, Presbyter of Constantinople, Fourteen Homilies (Brisbane, 1991) pp. 87-94.

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2. I am grateful to Fr Michael Fortounatto and to Nicolas Ossorguine for their advice on the subject.

3. Fr John Breck, ‘Mary in the New Testament,’ Pro Ecclesia, 2/4 (1993) pp. 460-472.

4. Fr John Breck, ‘Mary: Mother of Believers, Mother of God,’ Pro Ecclesia, 4/1 (1995) pp. 105-111.

5. Basil the Great, ep. 135, PG 32, col. 372; see also Gregory of Nazianzus, PG 35, col. 1181 A.

6. Gregory of Nyssa, Vita Moses 2.21 (Jean Daniélou ed., SC 1, Paris, 1968, p. 118); Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion (New York, 1963) pp. 64-5. Also with reference to the typological references employed by Proclus of Constantinople see Nicholas P. Constas, ‘Weaving the Body of God: Proclus of Constantinople, the Theotokos and the Loom of the Flesh’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 3:2 (1995) pp. 176-82.

7. For the historical background and the mariological aspects of the homiletic work of Proclus see Constas, op.cit., pp. 169-176.

8. D. Caillau, S. Patris nostri Ephraem Syri Opera, IV (Paris, 1844) pp. 440-444; also introduction to the hymn by Romanos, Marie a la Croix, by Grosdidier de Matons (SC 128; 1967), p. 144.

9. The hymn provides evidence for the introduction of the feast of the Dormition but most interestingly for the purpose of the present paper it introduces the lamentation of the Mother of God at the crucifixion and the burial of the Lord. Jacob of Sarug, Hymn on the Dormition of the Mother of God, in Baumstark (ed.) OC, 5 (1905) pp. 91-9; also quoted by H. Graef, op.cit., p. 122.

10. George of Nicomedia, Oratio in illud: ‘Stabant autem juxta crucem Jesu Mater ejus, et soror Matris ejus’ atque in sepulturam divini corporis Domini nostri Jesu Christi, sancta ac magna die Parasceves; , PG 100, cols. 1457A-1489D; citation in 1464C.

11. For the literary genre of the kontakion and its background, see E. Werner, The Sacred Bridge (London, 1959) pp. 226-231. For the feature of dialogue in hymnography see N.Tomadakis, vol. 2 (1993) pp. 109-115 and for a different use of dialogue Averil Cameron, ‘Disputations, Polemical Literature and the Formation of Opinion in the Early Byzantine Period’ in G.J. Reinink and H.L.J. Vastinphout (eds.), Dispute Poems and Dialogues in the Ancient and Medieval Near East (Leuven, 1991) p. 106-7.

12. Roman?s le Mélode, Hymnes, Tome IV, Grosdidier de Matons (ed.) (SC 128, Paris, 1967) pp. 160-187.

13. ibidem., introduction, p. 143; see also Triodion, Compline of Good Friday, Ikos of Tone Eight, Canticle 7 and elsewhere.

14. Romanos op.cit. stanza 1, 1. 8.

15. PG 100, col. 1473C-D. ;

16. PG 100, col. 1472B.

17. Romanos, op.cit., st. 5,1. 1-2.

18. PG 100, col. 1476C.

19. PG 98, In Dominici Corporis Sepulturam, cols. 244B-289B.

20. For the interpretation of the prophecy of Symeon by the Alexandrian exegetical school see H. Graef, op.cit., passim.

21. Gail Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices, Women’s Laments and Greek Literature (London, New York, 1992), pp. 144-149; Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (Cambridge, 1974), passim.

22. Henry Maguire, Art and Eloquence in Byzantium (Princeton, 1981) pp. 91-108.

23. col. 273B-D.

24. Lenten Triodion, Eng. transl. by Archimandrite Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary (London, 1978) p. 268.

25. See PG 100, col. 1469A and 1476C.

26. Friday in the First Week of Lent, Stavrotheotokion in the Eighth Tone, op.cit., p. 272.

27. PG 100, col. 1472C.


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