- Cyrillona: A Critical Study and Commentary by Carl Griffin
Gorgias Eastern Christian Studies 46
Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016
Pp. x + 337. $118.30.
Who was the Syriac poet Cyrillona, what were his works, and what is his place in early Christian literature? In this book Griffin sheds light on this compelling theologian-poet from late ancient Roman Mesopotamia.
Cyrillona is a familiar name to students of Syriac literature because of his presence in Symbols of Church and Kingdom: A Study in Early Syriac Tradition, by the late Robert Murray, SJ. Many scholars of late antique Christianity, however, remain unacquainted with the beautiful poetry of this fourth-century Syrian. Griffin, therefore, has done a great service in writing this book that contextualizes this author and analyzes his writings. Griffin introduces each of Cyrillona’s poems, analyzes their literary features, and comments upon their content. This book complements Griffin’s edition and translation of the writings of Cyrillona: The Works of Cyrillona, Texts from Christian Late Antiquity 48 (2016). Those who read Cyrillona are advised to have Griffin’s edition of his Works so that they can follow the analyses of the poems that Griffin offers in this book.
In Chapter One, Griffin introduces Cyrillona and his corpus. He reviews the scholarship on Cyrillona and then discusses hypotheses concerning the author’s identity (3–8). Griffin demonstrates why a late fourth-century date can be attributed to Cyrillona based upon a reference Cyrillona makes to an invasion of the Huns (31). Each of the five subsequent chapters contains an analysis of the poems that are authentically Cyrillona’s: On the Institution of the Eucharist (Chapter Two), On the Washing of the Feet (Chapter Three), On the Pasch of Our Lord (Chapter Four), On the Scourges (Chapter Five), and On Zacchaeus (Chapter Six). Each chapter could be studied as a self-contained unit.
Griffin offers an interpretative framework for understanding Cyrillona’s poetic discourse, and he delineates the strident features of Cyrillona’s symbolic theology and exegesis. This book excels in situating Cyrillona in relationship to other Syriac authors, showing where Cyrillona’s language and theological imagery is unique to him and where it mirrors others, such as Ephrem and Aphrahaat.
This book teaches us much about Cyrillona’s exegetical method and sacramental worldview. Griffin notes the author’s affinity for the Gospel of John. In the poems studied in Chapters Two, Three, and Four, Griffin underscores Cyrillona’s talent for dramatizing the events of the Last Supper. These, in Griffin’s interpretation, present an imagined mystagogy that Jesus gave his disciples (60–61). Cyrillona portrays Christ as a type of the High Priest in the lineage of the Levitical priests who dons mysteries, parables, figures, and prophecy (61).
In Chapter Three Griffin studies Cyrillona’s homiletic poem On the Washing of the Feet and shows how Cyrillona imagined the events of the Last Supper in the Upper Room. The poet, as Griffin highlights, directs his listeners to wonder at Christ’s lavation of his apostles’ feet. Griffin proposes a baptismal context for the delivery of this sermon. He suggests that Cyrillona may have written it for the [End Page 670] liturgy of Holy Thursday, since Holy Thursday was the day on which baptism was performed in the Syrian world in Cyrillona’s time. On the Washing of the Feet may even be an early explanation for the practice or rite of the washing of the feet in the Syriac world (98), but, as Griffin cautions, that remains conjecture. Like other patristic authors, Cyrillona identifies Christ’s washing of the feet of the apostles as an example of humility and service that his apostles should imitate. Yet Cyrillona also interpreted the washing of the feet as Christ’s way of preparing his apostles for a life of preaching and delivering the sacraments. Griffin argues that the entire poem was meant to inspire wonder in the minds of the faithful both at Christ’s act of servile lavation and at creation’s cosmic reaction to Christ’s self-abasement.
Griffin’s sophisticated analysis of the first three poems...