The Synaxarion liturgical book of the Orthodox Slavs through the eyes of researchers

Written by Радослава Станкова

The Synaxarion is a translated written anthology that dates back to Byzantine synaxarion and monthly calendars. It is in fact hagiographic calendar collection of short synaxarion lifes, combined in a genre-specific manner.


For the Synaxarion liturgical book, the term hagiographic sinaxarion used by Alexey Pentkovsky (Пентковски 2011) is quite appropriate as it is a book of narrative texts about Christian saints and martyrs presented in a calendar sequence (cf. Тасева 2003, Давыдова 2005, Давыдова 2010, Прокопенко 2012).

In the Russian research tradition identified are three groups of the Slavic version of the liturgical book, dubbed Synaxarion – the translated synaxarion (with the problem of identifying its Greek protograph), the long version, and the short version of the Synaxarion.

Contemporary mediaeval studies have accepted the following historical development of this book: (a) the end of the 11th century saw the translation of the Greek hagiographic synaxarion (presumably in the territory of Ohrid Archbishopric, according to Pentkovsky – Пентковски 2011); (b) In the 12th century the translated synaxarion penetrated into Russia and there the long and the short version were formed (Фет 1987, Прокопенко 2011); (c) In the 13th century the translated synaxarion spread in the Balkans, supplemented with works about Slavic saints (Stanislav’s Synaxarion 1999, Павлова 2008); (d) In the 14th century the verse synaxarion/prologue in verse appeared, known in South Slavic literature in two translations, while its Tarnovo edition penetrated in the Russian literature (Турилов 2006).

It has been established that the earliest Slavic translation of the book referred to an edition of the Menelogion of Byzantine Emperor Basil II (c 985), made by monks Elijah and Constantine of Mokisia from the Monastery of Stoudios in the 11th century (Сергий, архим. 1901. 1901, 1: 309–316). The Menologion of Emperor Basil II (976–1025) (Vat. Gr. 1613) covers the winter half of the church year. The translation had been the basis of the Slavic Synaxarion (Фет 1987: 376, Коцева 2007: 181). The name Syanxarion comes from the preface (prologue) contained in this edition along with the names of the compilers (see Темчин 2010). It was introduced in Slavic liturgy in the 12th century at the latest.

An important problem in considering the Synaxarion (or the hagiographic Synaxarion) is the time and place of its original Slavic translation. Thus, the following topics are developed in the writings of contemporary researchers:

1. The Greek archetype, which is the closest in composition to the early Slavic translation of the Synaxarion, dates back to the recently introduced Synaxarion Vat. Gr. 2046 from the 12th–13th centuries (Luzzi, Perria 1998: 159-160; Прокопенко 2008, Лосева 2009: 24, Пентковский 2011) and its translation was made not before than late 11th–early 12th century.

It is assumed that this translation was not made in Bulgaria, which at that time had lost its state independence, and also because the translated synaxarion lacks the early Bulgarian memories of the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius (Лосева 2009: 25). But in the sermon part of the Synaxarion there are works by Clement of Ohrid, Cosmas the Priest, and Monk Petar.

2. The question of the time and place of the translation of the Byzantine synaxarion provokes many hypotheses – was it translated in Russia in the early 12th century (Сергий, архим. 1901, 1; Соболевский 1910, Mošin 1959) or was it the result of joint work of Russian and South Slavic writers in Constantinople or at Mount Athos (Сперанский 1920: 210–212, Сперанский 1960: 40, Фет 1987: 377, Давыдова 1999)? In fact, the final stage of editing the Byzantine synaxarion and its Slavic translation were not made in Constantinople or at Mount Athos, as suggested in earlier research, because the Synaxarion lacks local memories from these places. A memory of St Athanasius the Athonite is also missing – he had died in 1000 and had been canonized immediately after his death (which shows that the book was compiled before the end of the 10th century). It is known that Christopher of Mytilene (who lived in the first half of the 11th century) wrote a couplet about Venerable Athanasius, but his memory had become part of the Synaxarion relatively late (Лосева 2009: 28–29).

3. Where was the hagiographic synaxarion translated – in Bulgaria or in Kievan Russ? This is a question to which scientists have been looking for an answer for two centuries already (Востоков 1842, Соболевский 1910: 176, etc.). Recently, a number of modern scholars (Станков 1997, Станков 2014, Пентковская 2003, Пичхадзе 2004, etc.) have raised the problem of the lexical Russianisms at the background of the common Slavic vocabulary. V. Zhelyazkova (Желязкова 1998: 88) expressed the opinion that the Russianisms in the Synaxarion do not represent a significant lexical layer. T. V. Pentkovskaya (Пентковская 2003: 131–135) identified ‘a special situation of lexical variation’ in the translated synaxarion and ‘the presence of lexical doublets’, which ‘testifies to the work of several translators’.

Researchers have come up with the idea of ‘a possible joint collaboration of Bulgarian writers in Kievan Russ with or without the participation of a Russian translator’ (Лосева 2009: 33, Темчин 2010, etc.). The idea of joint work of several translators was expressed by M. N. Speranski (Сперански 1960: 40), later supported by B. Angelov (Ангелов 1972: 59–60) and L. P. Zhukovskaya (Жуковская 1983), but it has turned out that it is still necessary to study the lexical composition of the Synaxarion in more detail.

4. As a liturgical book, the hagiographic synaxarion follows the statutory regulations of the current typikon. It has been established that the Studite typikon provides for the reading of the saints’ vita during the service, but its variants Typikon of the Monastery of Mother of God Evergetis and Messina’s Typikon provide for reading Symeon the Metaphrast’s vita and not the ones from the synaxarion. In addition, in the earliest copies of the Synaxarion evident are some discrepancies with the Studite liturgical practice in instructions of the typikon (Давыдова 1998: 205–206). A. M. Pentkovsky (Пентковский 2011) examined the Greek original of the Slavic hagiographic synaxarion (Vat. Gr. 2046), scrutinizing on the regional local liturgical traditions, as a result of which in most cases the books preserved to this day differ in the set of memories, according to the topographic characteristics and the synaxarion readings contained therein. The Greek original of the Slavic translation of this type of book is not known, but its composition was characterised by the following features in its content: (1) Preface (prologue), preceding the Synaxarion and containing the names of Elijah and Metropolitan Constantine of Mokisia; (2) Presence of troparia before the synaxarion texts, which in other editions have been placed after them; (3) Texts containing specific Constantinople liturgical information; (4) Characteristic memories of ‘Western’ origin, which lack in the Constantinople ones, but are present in the South Italian books of the type; (5) Memories dating from the middle and second half of the 10th century, which tell us that the Greek original of the Slavic translation was created on the border between the 10th and 11th centuries. The Russian researcher came to the conclusion that a manuscript with this coontent is related to the Greek worship tradition in the territory of the Ohrid Archbishopric, where its Slavic translation was made in the 11th century. In the late 10th century this area was in fact the administrative and ecclesiastic centre of Tsar Samuil’s state and worship was performed in Old Bulgarian. This translation was soon transferred to Russia where it became widespread as an authoritative composition, like other liturgical books traced back to a complete set of interconnected books dating back to the time of St Clement of Ohrid. This thesis is further supported by linguistic research in terms of vocabulary (Прокопенко 2011а: 670) and textology (Прокопенко 2011б: 714).

Sinaxarion readings were not recorded in the early office menaia (they appeared in some 11th–12th-century Greek manuscripts but in the Slavic menaion they were included as early as the end of the 13th century and onwards). The information about synaxarion readings in the Typikon refers to the later period from the beginning of the 14th century (Лосева 2009: 43–44).

5. The last question we can ask ourselves is related to the person who had assigned the translation of the hagiographical Synaxarion (the Prologue liturgical book) – was he the ruler, the head of the church (for the needs of the cathedral church) or the Father Superior of a monastery? Its quick dissemination testifies to the special place the Synaxarion enjoyed among the other liturgical books.

The only relatively complete Russian copy of the translated synaxarion preserved to this day is a prologue from the National Library of Sts Cyril and Methodius – РНБ, Соф. № 1324 –from the 12th–13th century. Its first part contains the memories and vitas of saints for the winter half-year, and the second part – homilies and sermons (the instruction part is dated to the mid-13th century). This collection contains many Constantinople memories and feast days (Фет 1977 и Давыдова 2005) and is richer in content than the short edition of the Synaxarion. Therefore, researchers have come to the idea that in the synaxarion based on the short edited version a tendency can be identified for shortening of the hagiographic material from the translated synaxarion, i.e. the short edition is secondary and, moreover, all manuscripts from this edition from the 12th to the end of the 14th century are of Pskov-Novgorod origin (Лосева 2009: 47–52).

Today, the preserved South Slavic 13th–14th -century synaxarion (Bulgarian and Serbian) are significantly more numerous than all known (around 16 complete copies and 4 fragments, most for the winter half-year – Станкова 2017, Чистякова 2018). Not a few of them contain memories about Russian saints, but the East Slavic memories and their corresponding texts, preserved in the earliest copies of this liturgical book, do not refer to its original translation, but rather to its 13th –century edition (Павлова 1993, Павлова 2008).

According to N. M. Speransky (Сперанский 1960: 39), a new edition of the Synaxarion was created in the Balkans at the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire. V. Mošin (Mošin 1959) supported this idea and divided the manuscripts into two groups – Serbian group (containing memories about Serbian saints), and Bulgarian group (containing memories about Bulgarian saints). In the modern classification of the South Slavic synaxarion, M. Chistyakova (Чистякова 2018: 5) defined four editions and pointed out that the Bulgarian edition reflects the earliest translation of the Synaxarion that is close to the Greek synaxarion (Vat. Gr. 2046). It containes vitas and memories of Bulgarian saints – St Petka of Tarnovo, St John of Rila, St Gavril of Lesnovo, St John of Polivot and St Tsar Petar. In the Serbian edition, the traditional translation of the Synaxarion, known from the East Slavic copy (РНБ, Соф. 1324), has been revised. In the Serbian short version, both memories and hagiographic material were abbreviated. And the last, fourth edition, appearing in a manuscript from the Monastery of St Nicholas (Bijelo Polje Monastery) No 34 is of a mixed type of a synaxation and a prologue in verse – the compiler of this manuscript added verses to the vitas instead of troparia.

Based on a textual analysis, O. V. Loseva (Лосева 2009: 60) concluded that in the South Slavic synaxarion there are errors characteristic only of this edition and missing in the Russian copies of the translated synaxarion and in the short synaxarion edition. In general, the synaxarion of the South Slavic edition have common errors with the synaxarion of the Russian short edition, which raises the question of whether not a few of the South Slavic copies date back to one of the protographs of the Russian short edition. Nevertheless, it can be asserted that the protograph of the South Slavic edition has undergone significant development after its appearance in the Balkans (Лосева 2009: 62-64). According to E. A. Fet (Фет 1977: 86) and V. Zhelyazkova (Желязкова 1995), the troparia were added to the South Slavic synaxarion at a later time.

The study of the layer of hagiographic works dedicated to Russian saints constitutes an important issue in the research effort related to the Synaxarion – specifying the time of their penetration will contribute to solving the problems with the emergence of the South Slavic editions. This layer is not an archaic one. It reflects one of the stages in the development of the Synaxarion liturgical book. But it should be noted that some of the vitas were composed in Bulgaria, probably using Russian sources (Павлова 2008), while for the Bulgarian saints there are no vitas but only memories with troparia.

At a certain stage in the development of the Synaxarion liturgical book in Russia, homilies and sermons were inserted to its contents for each date of the calendar (Фет 1980: 54), thus making the volume of the book significantly grow (e.g. Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts, Тyp. No 164 for the first half of the 14th century – Лосева 2009: 73). The instructional part containing beneficial sermons for each day is actually a selection of homilies about monks who were probably read in the monastery dining room. A Homily on the Intercession of the Theotokos (October 1) was inserted in the Sophia Synaxarion from the 13th century (Russian State Library, Moscow, Sof. No.1324, ff. 189–190). The composition of the instructional part in the Russian synaxarion is dated to period between the 1160’s (when the feast day of the Intercession of the Theotokos was established in Russia) and the late 12th century (the death of Kirill of Turov – Лосева 2009: 76; in the earliest copies of the long edition preserved is the only known vitae of Kirill of Turov – Фет 1987: 380).

Modern researchers believe that the short edition of the Synaxarion, which originated in Russia in the second half of the 12th or the early 13th century, is secondary to the long edition (although its earliest surviving copies are dated to the first half of the 14th century). Some researchers, however, are on the opposite opinion (Чистякова 2008). The vitas from the translated synaxarion are included in the short edition without changes, while in the long edition they appear significantly revised. The editing of the part of the long version containing vitas was done on the basis of already translated texts. In in the first place these were pre-Metaphrast reading menaion, which are known to have been translated in Bulgaria in the 10th century. The vitas of Cyril (February 14) and Methodius (May 11), homilies by Clement of Ohrid, Monk Petar and Cosma the Priest were added to the long version. A number of memories and feast days of Constantinople origin were omitted during the compilation of the long version (Лосева 2009: 81–84).

E. A. Fet (Фет 1987: 380–381) was the first to claim that the short version was secondary to the long version. Belgian scientist F. Thomson (Thomson 2004: 27 Addenda) also supported this view. L. V. Prokopenko (Прокопенко 2007, Прокопенко 2010, Прокопенко 2011) added light to this hypothesis by drawing up an evolution timeline of the translated synaxarion, according to which the vitas in the translated synaxarion were edited and supplemented with homilies and sermons, the result of which was the long (second) version of the Synaxarion. Prokopenko also suggested that in the long version miracles were added after the vitas of the respective saints, and homilies were added after the respective feast days. Not a few copies of the long version of the Synaxarion are of a compilation nature and contain additions taken from the short version (such as the Story of the Transfer of the Relics of the Holy Passion-Bearers Boris and Gleb for May 2 – Лосева 2009: 120).

With the aim to cast light on the issue with the two Russian editions of the Synaxarion, O. V. Loseva (Лосева 2009: 122) suggested that the instruction part had originally existed independently and when added to the vitas of the long version, it was edited, while the selection of the contents of the short version can be related back to the original instruction content.

In the 14th century, a new edition of this type of book with verses preceding the vitas became popular in the Balkans. It was dubbed Prologue in verse and had originated in Byzantium in the second half of the 12th century. The verses in this collection actually replace the troparia from the earlier Ordinary Prologue. The readings in this version of the Prologue differ in volume, language and style (Стойкова 2006: 271–272). The composition and arrangement of the Prologue in verse are in line with the requirements of the Jerusalem Typikon. The Greek text from which the translations were made is identical with the Synaxarion of the Great Church in Constantinople (published by Delehaye 1902) and with the text in the Greek printed menaion.

The Prologue in verse penetrated Russia at the end of the 14th century in its Tarnovo translation, introduced by Metropolitan Cyprian (the earliest copy is from the State History Museum, Chud. 17). In the following 15th and 16th centuries, the new calendar collection was already widespread (Щеглова 2011). Today it is known in manuscripts from the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery and other monasteries. It was probably used in monastery liturgies in Russia, but unlike Serbia and Bulgaria, it did not completely replace the early version of the Synaxarion (the so-called Ordinary Prologue) in worship.

The Russian manuscript tradition of the Prologue in verse presents three variants of combining the verse and ordinary editions: (1) adding the sermon part of the ordinary Prologue to the Prologue in verse; (2) adding verses (taken from the verse version or rewritten) to the ordinary version; (3) adding new sermon texts. The first variant is present in the Great Makariy’s Reading Menaion (Турилов 2006: 72).

In the content of the copies of the Prologue in verse for the winter half-year all Bulgarian copies contain a cycle of original Tarnovo prologue vitas of saint Petka of Tarnovo (October 14), St John of Rila (October 19), St Mihael the Warrior (November 22) and a Prologue story for the transfer of the relics of Hilarion of Maglen (October 21). This original Old Bulgarian cycle of vitas, indicative of the Tarnovo translation of the Prologue in verse, is presented in copies from the Moscow Literary Centre (the earliest copy is from the 15th century – Russian State Library, f. 304, No 717), while the copies of the Prologue in verse for the winter half-year, originating from the Novgorod Literary Centre, contains only the Prologue vitae of St John of Rila, the Story of the Transfer of the Relics of St Hilarion of Maglen, and two Serbian vitas – of St Simeon and St Sava. There are no original Russian prologue vitas in the Bulgarian and Serbian copies of the Prologue in verse.

Different opinions have been expressed about the translation of the Prologue in verse. Based on two 16th-century Serbian copies, A.I. Yatsimirski (Яцимирски 1916) came to the conclusion that there were two Bulgarian translations. D. Bogdanovich (Богданович 1975) was of the opinion that this type of collection has reached us in two Serbian translations (or editions). K. Ivanova (Иванова 1979) suggested the existence of two translations – Bulgarian and Serbian. In conclusion, we can assume that the Prologue in verse has reached us in one Bulgarian and one Serbian translation, in five editions – Tarnovo (Bulgarian), Lukia’s and Varlaam’s (Serbian), Moscow and Novgorod (Russian), known in numerous copies, dated back to the period from the 14th to the 17th century (Петков 2000, Тасева 2006, Чистякова 2018а).


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SESDiva ERA.Net RUS Plus Call 2017 – S&T

SESDiva. Project № 156

SESDiva aims at creating a virtual museum of written culture in relation to the social, religious, cultural, and ideological environment and relations between the South and East Slavs throughout the centuries from the 11th to the beginning of the 20th century.

Duration: 2018-2020
Program: ERA.Net RUS Plus Call 2017 ‐ S&T Projects