Our ecclesiastical hymns have been the subject of study for many years now as part of the general subject of Byzantine Philology in the European University Schools of Philology. Already from the middle of the 19th century we can note the publication of critical editions of hymns and the related scholarly exchange. In the Schools of Theology, and especially in the areas of Ecclesiastical History, Patrology and Liturgy, certain aspects of our Ecclesiastical Hymnography are examined. The first two disciplines were interested in the composers of the hymns, or historical persons, while the last was more interested in the meaning of the hymns within the context of the Church’s liturgical spirit. However, with the continuous scientific process of specialization the need to create a separate branch of Hymnology appeared and was officially adopted in the School of Theology in the 20th century.
The Hellenic hymnography of the Orthodox Church is often called Byzantine Hymnography even though it includes both pre-Byzantine and post-Byzantine compositions due to the fact that it realized its greatest acme and flowering during the height of the Byzantine era.
Four Major Periods
The Greek hymnography of the Orthodox Church is divided into four periods.
1. The first period includes the first four centuries of the Christian era. It is characterized by a desire to open new poetic venues and by the establishment of the prerequisites for the creation of an Ecclesiastical Hymnography. The faithful of the Church search for a poetic voice and expression that corresponds to their liturgical life. Amid the chaos of the various heresies of foreign influence and the multitude of reactions against them, the ecclesiastical hymnography finds its own identity and slowly begins to pave its own particular road.
2. The second period stretches from the fifth to the seventh centuries. It is characterized by a particular acme and, especially, by the successful flourishing of ecclesiastical hymnography which will realize its height in the poetic form of the Kontakion and in the person of Romanos Melodos.
3. The third period, from the eighth to the eleventh century, advances ecclesiastical hymnography to another high pinnacle, the dogmatic poetry of the Kanon.
4. Finally, the fourth period, from the twelfth century to the present, is characterized by a desire to imitate the prototypes of the past and except for rare exceptions presents us with clear ebbs and tides of ecclesiastical hymnography.