THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee)
Death of St. Nerses Shnorhali
(August 13, 1173)
One of the saints of the Armenian and the universal Church, Nerses Shnorhali, is also one of the most revered names in the Armenian Christian tradition. He was known with the appellative of Shnorhali (“Graceful”) due to his multiple talents: he was theologian, poet, musicologist, composer, and historian, and excelled in all those endeavors
Nerses Glayetsi was born in the castle of Tzovk, in the district of Tluk, in the Armenian Mesopotamia (the area around the city of Edesa or Urfa) in 1102. He belonged to the princely Pahlavuni family. His great-grandfather was Krikor Pahlavuni or Magistros (990-1058), a famous writer, scholar, and public official.
After the early death of his father, Prince Apirat Pahlavuni, Nerses and his older brother Krikor were placed under the guardianship of their maternal great uncle, Catholicos Krikor II Martyrophile (1066-1105), who placed them in the monastery at Fhoughri. Later, Krikor’s successor, Barsegh (1105-1113) sent them to the school of the monastery of Karmir Vank, headed by Bishop Stepanos Manouk, a highly regarded scholar and theologian.
Nerses’ brother Krikor became Catholicos at the age of 21, in 1113. Nerses was ordained a celibate priest in 1119 and consecrated a bishop at the age of 35, in 1137. He was one of the best educated men of his time.
He assisted Catholicos Krikor III in moving the Catholicosate to Dzovk, on the property of their father, in 1125. This move was brief, as in 1151 the Catholicosate moved its headquarters to the fortress of Hromkla, near the Euphrates River (Nerses’ surname “Glayetsi” was derived from the name of the fortress). In 1165 hostilities broke out between Toros II, Prince of Cilicia, and one of the strongest princes of the country, Oshin of Lambron. Krikor III sent his brother to mediate.
On his way to the mediation, Nerses met Byzantine governor Alexios and discussed the strained relations between the Armenian and Greek churches since the Greek Orthodox Church had declared that the Armenian Church and the Jacobite Church were heretics in 1140. This discussion impressed the Byzantine governor to the point that he urged the Armenian bishop to write an exposition of the Armenian faith. Nerses stressed in his letter that, as both the Armenian and Greek churches accepted the statements of the first Council of Ephesus (431), there was no clear reason for them not to be in agreement, and did not make any polemical statements about the later Council of Chalcedon and its Confession.
On Nerses’ return from his successful mediation effort and the death of his brother shortly thereafter, he was made Catholicos of the Armenian Church. He convened a council with emissaries selected by Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenos to discuss how they might be able to reunite the two churches (1171). The terms the emperor offered were, however, unacceptable to both Nerses and the Armenian Church, and the negotiations collapsed.
Nerses Shnorhali passed away on August 13, 1173 and was buried in the fortress of Hromkla. The Armenian Church celebrates him as a saint on October 13, during the feast of the Holy Translators, while the Catholic Church also celebrates him, but on August 13.
His prolific literary output included long poems like Lament of Edesa (1145-1146), Jesus the Son (1152), and others, such as the cosmological poem About the Sky and Its Ornaments. He refined and completed the Sharaknots (collection of liturgical hymns) and the Divine Liturgy, enriching it with his own songs, whose number amounts to more than a hundred. One of his best sharakans is the well-known Morning of Light (Առաւօտ լուսոյ, Aravod luso). He also composed some 300 riddles, extracted from Armenian folklore. His Universal Epistle, written in 1166 and addressed to the entire Armenian people, was particularly influential in Armenian medieval thought.