Cyril and Methodius - Spiritual Fathers of Slavic Civilization
In many ways, Eastern Europe owes its cultural and religious shape to the two missionary brothers, Saint Cyril (827-869 AD) and Saint Methodius (826-884 AD). These two brothers were sent as missionaries by the Byzantine Emperor to the Slavic speaking peoples of the Moravia region. In doing so, they invented the precursor to the Cyrillic alphabet and laid the foundations for the liturgy used in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church, among other churches in eastern and Slavic-speaking Europe.
Cyril and Methodius’ Early Years
Cyril and Methodius were born Constantine and Michael, respectively, to an influential Byzantine army officer in Thessalonica. While in Thessalonica, the boys received a robust education. When they reached maturity, they were sent to the Imperial School of Constantinople. Michael was an able administrator and served as governor in Macedonia for a time. His brother Constantine became a scholar and professor at the Imperial School and lectured on philosophy.
Michael was very successful by the standards of his culture, but he began to tire of worldly pursuits and resigned his official position for the life of the monastery. After becoming a monk, he adopted the name Methodius.
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Political Background for the Missionary Work of Cyril and Methodius
Around 860, Emperor Michael III received a request from Moravian princes to send missionaries to spread Byzantine Christianity. The Moravian Empire was increasingly coming under the influence of the Roman Church, which used Latin as its liturgical language. The Church in Rome had also commissioned numerous German missionaries and priests to go to Moravia to spread Christianity.
The increasing influence of Latin Christianity and the use of a Latin liturgy gave the Germans significant influence in Moravia. The Moravians feared that the use of the Latin language in the liturgical and Biblical texts would allow the Germans, who used a Latin liturgy in their churches, to gain religious and cultural influence and eventually political dominance over Moravia. Thus, the desire to have the liturgy and scriptures translated into their native tongue, or at least a language other than Latin, was politically motivated as well.
Saints Cyril and Methodius, painted by Uroš Predić. (Public Domain)
Early Mission Work and Creation of the Glagolitic Script
When Michael III looked for who to send, he found that Constantine and Methodius were an ideal fit. They both knew a Slavic dialect spoken near Thessalonica and had proven themselves to be competent leaders and thinkers. They arrived in 863 and began to assist local congregations in making a liturgy in the Slavic language spoken in Moravia. While working on the liturgy, they realized that the Latin and Greek alphabets were not ideal for Slavic languages, so they created a new alphabet which would later evolve into the Cyrillic alphabet.
The alphabet that the missionary brothers created, the Glagolitic script, is not identical to the Cyrillic script, but the early Cyrillic alphabet was derived from it. The alphabet was based on a cursive form of the Greek alphabet that was in use in the Byzantine Empire at the time. The specific rules for their new alphabet were influenced by those of a local Slavic dialect spoken in northern Greece.
Baščanska ploča, the oldest evidence of the Glagolitic script. Found on the island of Krk, Croatia. (Public Domain)
This early version of the Cyrillic script was used to write the first Slavonic liturgy, which became the basis for the Old Church Slavonic liturgical and literary tradition. This tradition is the precursor to Church Slavonic, which is still used by many Eastern Orthodox churches in Europe today.
Conflict with the Local Ecclesiastical Hierarchy
The new liturgy was successful, but not everyone was happy about it. The local German priests and bishops were zealous for Rome and saw the use of a non-Latin liturgy as threatening to their influence. As a result, they opposed the brothers. They accused Constantine and Methodius of encroaching on their ecclesiastical jurisdiction. This came to a head in 868, when Constantine and Methodius had to go to Rome to appear before Pope Adrian II to explain their reasoning for making a vernacular liturgy.
They explained to him their belief that the liturgy should be in the vernacular language to make it more accessible. Pope Adrian II was won over by their arguments and commissioned them to go back and continue their missionary work. Methodius was made archbishop of his own archdiocese of Moravia, where the vernacular liturgy would be used. During this time, Constantine also officially became a monk and took the name Cyril. Unfortunately, Cyril passed away while they were still in Rome in 869.
Transfer of body (of Saint Clement or of Saint Cyril) from the Vatican to the Basilica di San Clemente, Rome (11th-century fresco). (Public Domain)
Methodius’ Final Years
Methodius continued his work of creating a vernacular liturgy and collection of sacred texts. By the end of his life, Methodius had translated most of the Bible as well as most of the works of the Church Fathers into Slavonic. Methodius’ work was not without difficulty, however. The German bishops still opposed the use of a non-Latin liturgy. In 870, Methodius was deposed as archbishop and confined to a monastery, preventing him from continuing his work. However, he gained the favor of Pope John VIII, who released him and reinstated him as archbishop around 873. Pope John VIII allowed continuation of the vernacular liturgy but limited its use and required that the Latin liturgy also be used to appease the Germans.
Methodius died in 884, partially from exhaustion because of the relentless pursuit of his rivals. Under Pope Stephen V (885-891), the rulings of Pope John VIII were reversed, and Latin became the sole liturgical language in all of Moravia. Methodius’ disciples were driven into exile.
Statue of Saint Methodius on the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc in Olomouc (Czech Republic). (Michal Maňas/CC BY 4.0)
Legacy of Cyril and Methodius
Although Methodius’ reforms were reversed in Moravia and other western Slavic regions, the tradition begun by Cyril and Methodius did not end there. Their disciples went east and south to regions that are now Serbia, Bulgaria, and eventually Russia, where the Old Church Slavonic liturgy was later readily adopted.
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In the late 9th century, the kingdom of Bulgaria adopted Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical language of the state church. It was at this time that the earliest form of the true Cyrillic alphabet was developed, derived from the Glagolitic script. Old Church Slavonic evolved into Church Slavonic in the 14th century, which is still used today in many Eastern Orthodox church traditions, especially the Russian Orthodox Church.
Mural in the Troyan Monastery of Saints Cyril and Methodius. (Public Domain)
Methodius and Cyril laid down the foundations for a Slavic Christianity distinct both from the Byzantine East and the Latin West, which helped to create a Slavic civilization. Much of what makes Slavic nations Slavic today can be traced to these two missionary brothers from Byzantine Thessalonica.
Top Image: Top of Statue of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Třebíč. Source: Jiří Sedláček – Frettie/CC BY SA 3.0
By Caleb Strom
Catholic Encyclopedia. “Sts. Cyril and Methodius.” Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04592a.htm
Catholic Online. “Sts. Cyril and Methodius.” Available at: https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=39
Christianity Today. “Cyril and Methodius: Apostles to the Slavs.” Available at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/missionaries/cyril-and-methodius.html
Omniglot. “Cyrillic Script.” Available at: https://www.omniglot.com/writing/cyrillic.htm
Omniglot. “Glagolitic Script.” Available at: https://www.omniglot.com/writing/glagolitic.htm
Soulis, George C. "The legacy of Cyril and Methodius to the Southern Slavs." Dumbarton Oaks Papers 19 (1965): 19-43.