Joseph the Hymnographer

Joseph the Hymnographer
Born c. 816
Died 3 April 886
Venerated in Eastern Orthodox Church
Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Catholic Churches
Feast Orthodox: April 3/4
Catholic: June 14

Saint Joseph the Hymnographer (Greek: Όσιος Ιωσήφ ο Υμνογράφος) was a monk of the ninth century. He is one of the greatest liturgical poets and hymnographers of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but as a poet he is often confused with Joseph, the Archbishop of Thessalonica and brother of Theodore the Studite, who were one generation older than him. He is also known for his confession of the Orthodox Faith in opposition to Iconoclasm. He is called "the sweet-voiced nightingale of the Church" by those who are in the know.


He was born around 816 AD in Sicily of devout parents, Plotinus and Agatha.[1] Joseph's family had to flee from Sicily due to the Arab invasion of the island.[2] According to the hagiographer Theophanes they went to Peloponnes. At the age of fifteen he was tonsured a monk at the Latomos Monastery of Thessalonica. About 840 the bishop of Thessalonica ordained him a hieromonk (priest-monk). While visiting Thessalonica the distinguished Gregory of Dekapolis was so impressed with Joseph, because of his rare character, that he invited him to join his Stoudios Monastery in Constantinople.

Iconodule mission to Rome

With the resurgence of Byzantine Iconoclasm under Leo V the Armenian and Theophilos, Joseph was sent by Gregory to Rome following an invitation of Pope Leo III in 841. While en route, Joseph was captured by Arab pirates and sold as a slave in Crete. In slavery St. Nicholas appeared to Joseph and asked him to sing in the name of God. Nicholas then said to him: "Arise and follow me!" Joseph found freedom soon after his vision. He could finally return to Constantinople after more than one year in slavery in Crete.[3] Theophanes is not clear, when Joseph returned to Constantinople, but he mentioned in one paragraph a triumphal return after the death of Theophilos and the restoration of the icons, but also after the recent death of Gregory of Decapolis.[4]

Monastic foundations

According to the temporal reconstruction of the early vitae by Daniel Stiernon, Joseph founded a monastery dedicated to his deceased mentor, Gregory of Dekapolis, in 855. Joseph started with an inclosure together with his and Gregory's disciple John at St. Antipas. After the latter's death in 850, he spent some years in a kind of sanctuary dedicated to St. John Chrysostom, where he continued his ascetic labors and attracted followers. Joseph transferred the relics taken from Gregory's corpse, together with those from their disciple named John,[5] and placed them in a sanctuary of his monastery's church dedicated to St. Bartholomew the Apostle.[6]

Exile and recognition as an anachorete and saint

In 858, he was exiled to the theme of Cherson after denouncing Caesar Bardas, brother of the Empress Theodora, for illicit cohabitation. Joseph returned again to Constantinople in 867, after Bardas had been assassinated.[7]

Through the favour of the Patriarch Ignatius I, he was appointed skeuophylax (keeper of the sacred vessels—i.e., the official responsible for the building containing the treasure of the church) in the Great Church of Constantinople. Joseph also stood high in the favor of Patriarch Photius the Great, the rival and successor of Ignatius, and accompanied Photius into banishment. He was among those who inspired the first missionaries to Russia.

He reportedly possessed the "gift of discernment" because of which Photius appointed him the spiritual father and confessor for priests, recommending him as, "A man of God, an angel in the flesh and father of fathers." He died 3 April 886 AD according to Theophanes.

Hagiography and Menologion

Joseph the Hymnographer appears as well in Latin as in Greek hagiography.[8] The earliest Vita was written by Theophanes who followed Joseph in his monastery as hegoumenos.[9] There is a later synaxarion written by John the Deacon whose exact identity is still a controversial matter,[10] and a much later Vita written by Theodore Pediasimos during the early Palaiologoi period.[11]

According to the Greek tradition the feast of Joseph the Hymnographer is celebrated on April 3, according to the Slavic rite on April 4, and on June 14 in communities of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Hymnographer

Since Joseph's contribution to the Studites reform is often confused with the works of Joseph of Thessalonica, Theodore's brother, the exact attribution of poems "by Joseph" is still a controversial issue. According to Evtychios Tomadakes among all the contributions of John the Hymnographer 385 canons and 9 kontakia[12] of the menaion, 68 canons of the parakletike, 6 complete canons of the triodion and 34 triodes-tetraodes, 2 canons and 24 triodes-tetraodes of the pentekostarion could be clearly attributed to the Sicilian Joseph. He also created more than 6 canons and 13 stichera—so-called apokrypha which were not included in the new chant books of the sticherarion created by the Studites.[13]


His hymns are still sung, not only by Eastern Christians, but by Western Christians as well. A number of his hymns have been adapted into popular Protestant hymns.

See also


  1. The exact year of birth is not known, but it can be roughly assumed between 812 and 818, most probably soon after 816.
  2. The exact place of origin varied among different hagiographers. He was likely from the Val Demone of Sicily, where most of the Orthodox communities were located. Tomadakis (1971) dates his family's depart from Sicily to 831, from the port of Palermo which he also regards as his birth town. Theodore Pediasimos on the other hand regarded Syracuse as his port and birth town.
  3. Later hagiographic legends, probably influenced by the inventions of Theodore Pediasimos, tent to prolong his stay as a prisoner to six years. The vision of Nicholas of Myra which is directly connected with Theophilos' death, ends with a direct exit from the prison's gates to Constantinople. They also regard the Arab pirates as hired by the iconoclastic emperor. Berbers often acted as slave traders on their own behalf and they were particular interested in educated Greeks due to their high value on Mediterranean slave markets. According to hagiographic conventions it is obvious that Joseph's adventurous journey to Rome was treated as a via purgativa.
  4. According to Tomadakes' interpretation of Theophanes' Vita Joseph was liberated after 28 January 842, and arrived at Constantinople by February 843, before the feast of Orthodoxy on March 11 (Stiernon 1973, 252).
  5. The earliest hagiographic sources are not clear to which saint the relics do really belong. Gregory, Bartholomew, and John (in Georgian versions) are mentioned, but they probably do not refer to Joseph's circle, but to Joseph's own hagiographic synaxaries dedicated to Bartholomew the Apostle and John of Egypt (Stiernon 1973, 260).
  6. Daniel Stiernon (1973, 252f) proposed the following datation: the enclosure with his disciple John at the hermitage St. Antipas (843-850), John's death (850), Joseph's stay at a sanctuary (σῆκος) of St. John Chrysostom (850-855), and the foundation of his monastery (855).
  7. Ev. Tomadakes (Stierson 1973, 253) dates the exile during the first patriarchate of Photius (858-867).
  8. About the hagiographic sources (BHG, p. 131) and their interpretation, see Daniel Stiernon (1973, 245-248).
  9. See the edition by Athanasios Papadapulos-Kerameus (1901).
  10. It was likely to be written during the eleventh century. A summary of the controversy offers Stiernon (1973, 248). Godfrey Henschen's edition of the synaxarion was reprinted at PG (105).
  11. See the edition by Maximilian Treu (1899).
  12. See the edition by Elpidio Mioni (1948).
  13. Evtychios Tomadakes (1971). See the review by Daniel Stiernon (1973, 244).



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