Wednesday, October 16, 2019

More on the Greek Mass of St Denis

As I noted in an article last week, the Abbey of St Denis near Paris had the custom of celebrating Mass in Greek on the octave day of its patron Saint, a custom which was maintained until the French Revolution. This was not the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, but the Mass of the Roman Rite translated into Greek, although the Canon and other silent parts of the Mass remained in Latin. The website of the Schola Sainte-Cécile has just made available in pdf the complete text of a work published in 1779, which gives an historical introduction to this tradition, followed by the ordinary of the Mass in Latin and French, and then the liturgical texts of the Greek Mass, including the chant. All of the following, which explains the orgins of this custom in much greater detail, comes from the article which accompanies it, written by Henri de Villiers.

As an example of the chant, here is the introit of the Greek Mass from the 1779 edition:


Compare this with the original:


The parts of the Latin Mass have been translated into Greek, and set to the same chant, with some adjustments for the change in accent.

The whole Mass of the octave was chanted in Greek; however, on the octave, the Epistle and Gospel were repeated in Latin, while on the feast day, they were sung first in Latin, and then repeated in Greek. This custom of doing the readings twice goes back to the Carolingian era, and was also done on Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, the feast of St Matthias, and that of the abbey’s dedication on February 24th. (Mercure de France, 1728).

The work linked above is the second edition, after a first issued in 1777, and was clearly made to help the faithful to follow the Mass. Various witnesses of the 17th and 18th centuries attest that this unusual celebration, which was done with great magnificence and a large number of ministers in sacred vestments, was attended by large numbers of pilgrims, especially since, for the entire octave, the abbey would solemnly expose the relic of St Denis’ head, and the silver reliquary which contained his body and that of his companions, Ss Rusticus and Eleutherius, for the veneration of the faithful.

The origin of the Greek Mass of St Denis

The oldest surviving liturgical book from the royal abbey of Saint-Denis is a sacramentary of the second half of the ninth century, (BnF Latin 2290), at the beginning of which we find the Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei in the Greek language, but written with Latin letters, and with the Latin text added between the lines.


There is also a fragment of the Gloria written in the same fashion in a sacramentary (Laon 118 f° 145v°) which the monks of Saint-Denis made in the later part of the 9th century or beginning of the 10th, and gave to the chapter of Laon as a gesture of thanksgiving for taking them in during a Norman invasion.

The second book which we have from St Denis is a missal written between 1041 and 1060 (BnF Latin 9436), which at the beginning has several parts of the ordinary in Greek and Latin, and also their musical notation in campo aperto (i.e., with notes, but no staff): three Kyries, a Gloria in Greek, followed by three others in Latin, and the Credo in Greek (but not in Latin!), then three each of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Latin only.

Another very notable rarity is the Cherubic hymn, one of the most famous pieces of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, translated into Latin to be used as a second Offertory at the Mass of the Trinity (f° 58v°).

“Qui cherubin mystice imitamur et vivifice Trinitatis ter sanctum hymnum offerimus, omnem nunc mundanam deponamus sollicitudinem sicuti regem omnium suscepturi cui ab angelicis invisibiliter ministratur ordinibus, alleluia. – We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, and chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity, let us set aside the cares of life, that we may receive the King of all, Who comes invisibly escorted by the Divine Hosts.”

The following is a reconstruction of it, since there is no manuscript which gives this version on staff notation.

However, this Missal gives no Greek parts for the octave of St Denis.


The abbey’s ancient library contained various works in Greek, including a manuscript of the year 1020 (BnF 375), which give the scribe’s name, a Greek monk called Elias, and has the texts of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy for Easter and the Pentecostarion (the Easter season), followed by a menaion (sanctoral). It is unlikely that the monks of Saint-Denis actually used this for liturgical celebrations in the Byzantine Rite, but in the 11th century, a scribe added three Greek texts to it: the Office of St Denis, (ff. 153r°-154r°), the Genealogy of Christ according to St Matthew for Christmas Matins, (ff. 154v°-155v°) and at the very end, the Epistle of St Denis’ feast (Acts 17, 22-34, St Paul’s discourse at the Areopagus – ff. 194v°). This last has the inflexions of an epistle tone written above the Greek text, indicating that it was used in the liturgy.

However, these Greek texts used within the Latin liturgy are certainly not proper to the abbey of Saint-Denis. At the Papal Mass, the Gospel was chanted in both Latin and Greek, a custom which has endured even to our own time. Anciently, the Gloria was sung in Greek on Easter and Christmas, and there were various Alleluias sung with verses in Greek at the stational Vespers of Easter and its octave. As the Papal liturgy spread through the Carolingian Empire during the 9th century, this Roman custom was not only preserved, but further developed, very much in keeping with the scholarly renewal of the Carolingian Renaissance, and many similar pieces in Greek are found in other sacramentaries of the 9th and 10th century.

This usage began to disappear in most places in the 11th century, but at Saint-Denis, the monks, proud of the Greek origin of their Patron Saint, (much contested by more recent hagiographical scholarship) not only preserved it, but broadened its scope beyond that of the Carolingian period.

The first indications of a “Missa greca” on the octave of St Denis are found in an Ordo for the services at the monastery, dated to 1275 (BnF Latin 976 ff. 137r° et 137v°). Another version of this ordo from the same period is at the Bibliothèque Mazarine (ms. 526); here is a translation with some notes.

On the octave of Ss Denis, Rusticus and Eleutherius:
  • At the Mass, three cantors intone the Introit in Greek “Zeuete agallya” (probably a transcription of Venite exultemus, Ps. 94, 1). Six cantors continue (“four” in the Mazarine ms.). Verse, “Zeuete agallya” (same text as the Introit). Doxa Patri (Gloria Patri).
  • Kyrie, Fons bonitatis (frequently sung during octaves in the Use of Paris).
  • After this, the priest begins “Doxa en ipsistis [Gloria in excelsis Deo].”
  • Prayer: Protegat nos, Domine (the same given in the 11th century Missal of Saint-Denis for the octave, and also in the printed edition of 1779).
  • The Epistle is then read in Greek, and then in Latin: Stans Paulus (Acts 17 as noted above.)
  • Gradual: Phobite thon Kyrion (Timete Dominum – also in the Latin 11th century Missal of Saint-Denis on the octave). Verse: Ide ekztontes, by three [cantors].
  • Alleluia: Ekekraxan dykei, by four [cantors].
  • Sequence: Gaude prole [a work of the French King Robert II “the Pious”; the Mazarine ms gives a different one, “Supere armonie”].
  • Before the Gospel, the antiphon O beate Dyonisi is sung.
  • Then the Gospel is read in Greek, then in Latin: Videns Jesus turbas (Matthew 5, 1-12 – the edition of 1779 has Luke 12, 1-8 for the octave).
  • Phisteuo, that is the Creed, is said, even if it is not a Sunday.
  • Offertory: Y ta Cherubyn [The Cherubic hymn, in Greek, and not in Latin as in the earlier manuscripts].
  • Sanctus: Agyos.
  • Agnus: O Agnos tou Theu et Agnus Dei, three [cantors]. (‘Agnos’ is a mistake for ‘amnos’, one of several such transcriptions errors.)
  • Communion: Psallate Ysu (Psallite Jesu).
  • Postcommunion: Sumpsimus, Domine, pignus (also as in the 11th century Missal of Saint-Denis on the octave, still in use in 1779).
  • Ite missa est.
  • Sicut Angelorum (perhaps the responsory for the final procession).
Therefore, as of the 13th century, the Mass of the Octave of St Denis was sung entirely in Greek, except the prayers, the sequence, and a final chant. Unfortunately, no manuscripts of the chants themselves survives.

A new step towards a more complete version of the Greek Mass took place in 1280, when a series of nine folios were added to a precious Gospel book originally donated to the abbey by Charles the Bald in the 9th century. These new folios, made of purple parchment, and decorated with letters of silver, contain the Epistles and Gospels in Greek for Christmas, the dedication of the abbey Easter, Pentecost, and the feast of St Denis. (F-BnF 9387, ff. 17r°, 160v°–161v° et 207r°) The Gospel texts are preceded by the introductory rites of the Byzantine Liturgy: “Wisdom. Stand aright. Let us listen to the Holy Gospel. Peace to all.) This is also still done at the Papal Mass, but had fallen out of use at Saint-Denis by the 18th century; in the 1779 edition, the Gospel is introduced as in the Roman Rite. Some of these readings are also accompanied with the notes of the Epistle and Gospel tones.

The Missa greca of Saint Denis: the Gospel of the feast in Greek, with the notes of the Gospel tone in red.
The anonymous author of the introduction to 1779 edition writes, “During the printing of this Mass, the Abbey of St Denis shared with us a Greek manuscript, in which we find the Greek Mass of St Denis revised by the famous Guillaume Budé, who added at the end a letter signed and initialed by his own hand. He died in 1540. This Mass is different from the one which is sung today.”

I believe that the monks must have entrusted the job of revising the texts of the Greek Mass of the octave to the famous Parisian humanist and Greek scholar Guillaume Budé (1476-1540). We may suppose that Budé translated into Greek the few pieces of the Mass that remained in Latin according to the 13th century ordos: namely, the sequence, the prayers, and perhaps some of the other parts of the Ordinary of the Mass, such as “Dominus vobiscum”, the Preface, the Lord’s Prayer, and its introduction, the O salutaris hostia (the singing of which was, since the reign of Charles V, obligatory in France at the Elevation), the pontifical blessing, and the prayers for the commemorations.

At some point between 1540 and 1658, the monks of Saint-Denis revised all of the proper texts of the Mass: the introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory and communion were changed, and the Cherubic hymn was dropped. The texts of the feast day were now used for the whole octave, where previously, there were proper texts for the vigil, the feast, and each day of the octave. The three prayers of the Mass are identical to those in the 13th century sources, but now translated into Greek. This revision may have taken place after the arrival of the Benedictines of the Congregation of Saint-Maur, which took over the abbey in 1633.

This revision was printed in a very nice edition by the king’s music printer Robert III Ballard (c. 1610-1672). Here is the copy in the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, in which a later hand has added a phonetic transcription to help the cantors. Unfortunately, this edition only gives the chant parts, with nothing at all to indicate the origin of the new texts of the propers.


However, we do know that, beginning in 1658, Ballard began to publish several books of plain-chant, most of which were revised or composed by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers (c. 1632-1714), organist at Saint-Sulpice. It seems possible that that he, as a specialist in plain-chant, and then at the beginning of his career, may have been asked to supervise or even create the new texts chosen by the monks of Saint-Denis.

Ballard’s edition of 1658 served as the model for the writing of several manuscripts of the 17th and 18th century, as for example this beautiful one from the Bibliothèque Mazarine, ms 4465, which dates to the 18th century, and was also the basis for the edition of 1779. (Some of the pages in the version linked above are mutilated, but their content could easily be reconstructed from the previous edition of 1777, and the manuscripts on which they are based.)


Finally, we note that in the 18th century, a Roman Rite Mass was celebrated in Greek for the knights of the Holy Sepulcher in their Parisian church. As with that of St Denis, this was a means of celebrating the eastern origins of the institution. Unfortunately, no liturgical document survives to give us a better idea of how this other Missa greca was celebrated; like that of St Denis, it was ended by the French Revolution.

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