ST. GRIGOR NAREKATSI (Gregory of Narek) (c. 947 - after 1003), poet, exegete, musician, celebrated saint of the Armenian Apostolic Church, youngest son of Bishop Khosrow Andzevatsi. Supposedly, he was by birth from the village of Narek (in the province of Vaspurakan of the Rshtunik region), or from the region of Andzevatsik. In the colophons he called himself “a monk of the Monastery of Narek” (whence the name “Narekatsi”).
His education and preparation for becoming a celibate priest was at the high school of the Monastery of Narek, under the tutorship of abbot and headmaster Anania Narekatsi (most probably, the son of Grigor's maternal grandfather's brother). During his studies, Grigor demonstrated unique capacities and mastered not only Armenian literature, the Bible, and the rich translated literature, but also, knowing the Greek language, he became acquainted with Byzantine culture. It can be concluded from the poet's colophons that, though living in a monastic environment, he did not isolate himself from ecclesiastical and political events. In 977, by the order of Prince Gurgen of Andzevatsik (king of Artsrunik, 990-1003), he wrote his Commentary of the Song of Songs, and in 983, on the occasion of the benediction of the Monastery of the Holy Cross of Aparank, he wrote, by order of Stepanos, the bishop of the place, the history of the establishment and building of the monastery. Probably in the first half of the 990s he wrote the dogmatic letter addressed to the abbot of the Monastery of Kchav in the province of Mokk (the letter was included in the “Book of Letters”), refuting the sect of Thondrakids and ruling out any tolerance towards the followers of that sect.
Grigor Narekatsi was a figure concerned with pan-Armenian ecclesiastical issues of his time. When free from monastic duties, he would isolate himself in the mountain cave in the north of the Narek Monastery for contemplation. Throughout the centuries that out-of-the-way cave was a pilgrimage site. According to a colophon, he died after completing the “Book of Lamentations”. His grave was in the neighborhood of the churches of Holy Theotokos and of St Sandukht, inside the chapel built in his memory, which was completely ruined after 1915 together with the whole monastic complex.
Grigor Narekatsi was canonized not later than the 12th century. The Armenian Church commemorates St Grigor Narekatsi, together with the Holy Translators, on the Saturday before the fifth Sunday following the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross.
On April 12, 2015, during the Holy Mass at St. Peter's Cathedral in Vatican, dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Pope Francis proclaimed St. Grigor Narekatsi Doctor of the Church.
The Work of Narekatsi
The interest in St Grigor’s works is due to their exceptional literary aestheticism. His best taghs and meghedies (non-canonical types of Church hymns) and his Book of Lamentation (called Narek since the 18th century by the Armenian people) marked a new phase in the development of Armenian medieval poetry, reflecting the spiritual, intellectual and sensual world of human being, a lofty individual's philosophical penetration into life mysteries.
The abundance of high quality poetic descriptions and similes in this song make the lyrical portrait of the Mother of God materially visible and tangible.In the taghs and meghedies, Grigor Narekatsi abundantly used descriptive-expressive means, enriched the Armenian versification in many ways, enlarged the possibilities of poetry construction and attached importance to the melodiousness of verses, creating unsurpassed examples of consonant assonances. It is a rich system of speech art, which became a guide for the development of Armenian lyrical poetry of later times.
The Book of Lamentation
The greatest creative feat of Grigor is his Book of Lamentation (1001-1003). These 95 chapters in the form of prayers are words addressed to God (“Words with God from the depths of the heart”), sincere and ingenious confessions of sins, supplications and prayers, also songs of glorification and expressions of wishes.
Narekatsi and Music
Grigor Narekatsi is also a great phenomenon and revered name in the field of music. His musical compositions were closely connected with the previous (5th–9th centuries) and subsequent (11th–15th centuries) phases of the historical development of Armenian professional vocal art, thence also with the entire period of the millennial rise. With the powerful layers of his compositions he brought about a remarkable change in Armenian medieval professional vocal art, particularly with his taghs, in the musical components of which, resolutely and in a talented way, he used a melodic style which was superior and free, compared to the old eight modes.
In the second half of the 10th century, Grigor Narekatsi became the originator of a new Armenian miscellany of spiritual songs, called Gandzaran or Tagharan. The 36 preserved poems (five of them are of dubious authorship) show that Narekatsi was the creator of the system of this collection with its specific song series, each of them with their four parts called gandz-tagh-meghedi-hordorak, corresponds to the order of Church feasts. Each of the series is a cycle of words and music.
Grigor Narekatsi himself composed the melodies of his poems. Having been transmitted orally, the melodies of only six of them have survived and been recorded in modern times (the melodies of the other songs are unknown). In the poems, especially in the taghs and meghedies, Gregory’s goal is the portrayal of the human inner nature and his emotional world, associated with Christian faith and worship.
Source: Encyclopedia Christian Armenia (in Armenian), Yerevan 2002