A kontakion (plural, kontakia) derives its name from the rod or spindle (kontax) around which the parchment scroll containing the text was originally wound. Each kontakion is prefaced by one or more brief stanzas called koukoulia (hoods, cowls), which indicate the general approach to the topic and, in the final line, introduce the refrain with which all subsequent stanzas conclude. These refrains offered the congregation an opportunity to participate in the performance by chiming in with the repeated phrases. (In this article the refrains are highlighted in color.) The 18 to 24 stanzas (oikoi: “houses”) of a work are constructed of a series of lines, woven in an intricate word-accent rhythm; each stanza follows the same metrical and musical pattern throughout the entire kontakion. The first letter of the initial word in every stanza contributes to an acrostic which “signs” every work:
The music to which these works were originally chanted by a cantor (melodos) has not survived. But it can be assumed that the melodic element was distinct enough to emphasize the basic and repeated stanzaic pattern, yet not obstrusive enough to blunt the teaching impact of the words.2 In fact, a decree of the Council in Trullo (691–692) made the preaching of a prose homily mandatory at all major liturgical functions. It did so, most probably, because after the death of Romanos, the compositions emphasized music over text, and thus deprived the kontakion of its essential homiletic effect.
Despite a feeble renaissance of the form in the ninth and tenth centuries, the works of Romanos are the only important examples to survive.3 Fragments of the works of other melodists—and isolated stanzas by Romanos—are still found in the sung portions of the Orthodox liturgy. The only complete kontakion—and even this is interspersed with other chants—still performed in the Greek church is the famous Akathistos (Standing Up) Hymn. This is a 24-stanza work (with an acrostic) dedicated to the Virgin, in which typical dramatic and narrative sections alternate with litany-like salutations and appeals to the Theotokos, the Mother of God who is at the same time “an unwedded bride” (refrain). Many scholars believe this masterpiece was composed by Romanos.4
Seven of the surviving kontakia of Romanos involve Old Testament characters; these include a petulant Noah, a competitive Jacob and Esau, a hard-hearted Elijah, a lyric trio of Hebrew youths in a fiery Babylonian furnace and two works on the patriarch Joseph (see the description and excerpts in accompanying main article). The largest category of these sung sermons deals with the life of Christ: nativity, baptism, the important Gospel miracles, several 025variations on the passion and crucifixion (see the “Victory of the Cross”), a half dozen resurrection kontakia for Eastertide, the ascension and the Second Coming. The Virgin is the subject of three works; she also plays an important role in other kontakia such as “The Wedding at Cana” and “Mary at the Cross.” The apostles are featured in “Pentecost” and in another work in which the direct power of their message and mission is contrasted with what Romanos sees as the effect sophistry of classical Greek literature. The New Testament parables of the “Wise and Foolish Virgins,” “The Prodigal Son” and “The Rich Man and Lazarus” are retold; Romanos also composed his poetic reflections on fasting, repentance (which pivots around Nineveh, Jonah and the withered gourd plant) and the call to a monastic life.5
Only one of his kontakia is overtly triggered by contemporary events: “On Earthquakes and Fires” refers directly to the series of natural and political disasters that plagued Constantinople in 532 C.E. and culminated in the famous “Nika” revolt which almost cost Justinian his throne. Romanos describes the ravages of the fires and riots—using typological praise harking back to the Jerusalem Temple for the lavish rebuilding efforts of the emperor and the empress Theodora.
Finally, there is a group of kontakia that commemorates various saints and martyrs, especially those with a special tie to Constantinople or to other parts of the Eastern empire. Scholars dispute the authenticity of almost all of these works.6
The major manuscripts of Romanos’ works are found in later collections called Kontakaria, a metrical sermons an liturgical pieces arranged in calendar-order for important feasts. These compendia date from the 10th to 14th centuries and are now found in the treasuries of monasteries at Mt. Athos in Greece, St. Catherine’s at the base of Mt. Sinai and at Patmos, as well as in collections at the Vatican, Moscow and several other Western libraries. So far the sands of Egypt have given up only a single papyrus containing a fragment of one stanza the kontakion on “The Hebrew Youths in the Fiery Furnace,” but there can be no doubt that Romanos’ fame and work spread to all Greek-speaking regions of the empire.7