Gregory of Narek

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Gregory of Narek
Grigor Narekatsi 1.jpg
Gregory of Narek depicted on a 1173 manuscript from Cilician Armenia.[lower-alpha 1]
Doctor of the Church
Born c. 945-951
Residence Narek Monastery
Kingdom of Vaspurakan, Bagratid Armenia (present-day Van Province, Turkey)
Died c. 1003-1011 (aged ~60)
Venerated in Armenian Apostolic Church
Catholic Church
Armenian Catholic Church
Canonized 12 April 2015, St. Peter's Basilica by Pope Francis[3]
Major shrine Chapel-Mausoleum at Narek Monastery[4]
Feast October (Armenian Apostolic Church: Holy Translators Day, a moveable feast)[5][6]
27 February (Catholic Church)[7]
Influences Neoplatonism, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
Influenced All Armenian literature, especially verse: Nerses Shnorhali, Sayat-Nova, Yeghishe Charents[8]
Major works Book of Lamentations (Narek)

Grigor Narekatsi[lower-alpha 2] (Armenian: Գրիգոր Նարեկացի; anglicized: Gregory of Narek)[lower-alpha 3] (c. 950 – 1003/1011) was an Armenian mystical and lyrical poet, monk, and theologian. He is venerated as a saint in the Armenian Apostolic and Catholic Churches and was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis in 2015.

The son of a bishop, Narekatsi was educated by a relative based at the Narekavank, the monastery of Narek, on the southern shores of Lake Van (modern Turkey). He was based there almost all his life. He is best known for his Book of Lamentations, a major piece of mystical literature.

Life and background

Grigor Narekatsi was based throughout his life at the monastery of Narek (Narekavank), seen here circa 1900. His chapel-mausoleum was located inside the monastery walls before it was destroyed in the mid-20th century.

Narekatsi was born c. 945-951 and died in the early 11th century: 1003 or 1010–11.[8][11][12][13][14] He lived in the semi-independent Kingdom of Vaspurakan, a part of the larger Bagratid Armenia, with its capital, first, in Kars, then in Ani.

Little is known about his life. He was born in a village on the southern shores of Lake Van, in what is now eastern Turkey, to Khosrov Andzevatsi, a relative of the Artsruni royal family.[15] Khosrov was ordained a bishop after being widowed and was appointed primate of the diocese of Andzevatsik.[16] His father was suspected of pro-Byzantine Chalcedonian beliefs[14] and was eventually excommunicated by Catholicos Anania Mokatsi for his interpretation of the rank of Catholicos as being equivalent to that of a bishop, based on the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.[17] Grigor and his elder brother Hovhannes were sent to the Narekavank, the monastery of Narek, where he was given religious education by Anania Narekatsi (Ananias of Narek). The latter was his maternal great-uncle and a celebrated scholar who had elevated the status of Narekavank to new heights. Being raised in an intellectual and religious fervor, Grigor was ordained priest in 977 and taught others theology at the monastery school until his death.[12][18]

Whether Narekatsi led a secluded life or not has become a matter of debate. Arshag Chobanian and Manuk Abeghian believe he did, while Hrant Tamrazian argued that Narekatsi was very well aware of the secular world and his time, had deep knowledge of both peasants and princes and the complexities of the world. Tamrazian believes Narekatsi could not have lived solely on literary ecstasy.[19]

Narekatsi was buried inside the walls of the monastery of Narek. A rectangular-shaped chapel-mausoleum was built on his tomb,[8][4] which survived until the mid-20th century, when the monastery was destroyed by the Turkish authorities, and later replaced with a mosque.[20][21][22]


Book of Lamentations (Narek)

File:Narek Matenadaran manuscript.jpg
A 1173 manuscript of the Book of Lamentations

The Book of Lamentations (Classical Armenian: Մատեան ողբերգութեան, Matean voghbergut’yan) is widely considered Narekatsi's masterpiece.[23] It is often simply called Narek (Նարեկ).[24][25] Completed towards the end of his life, circa 1002–03,[18][26] the work has been described as a monologue, a personal lyric and confessional poem, mystical and meditative.[27] It is composed of 95 chapters and over 10,000 lines.[8] Almost all chapters (except two) are titled "Words unto God from the Depths of My Heart".[26] The chapters, which are prayers or elegies, vary in length, but all address God. The central theme is the metaphysical and existential conflict between Narekatsi's desire to be perfect, as taught by Jesus, and his own realization that it is impossible and between the divine grace and his own sense of one's own unworthiness to receive that grace. However, the love and mercy of the all-embracing, all-forgiving, and amazing grace of God compensates the unworthiness of man.[28][29]

The book is considered a masterpiece of Christian spiritual literature[13] and the "most beloved work of Armenian literature."[30] It has been historically kept in Armenian homes.[31][32] Scholars have described its popularity among Armenians as being second only to the Bible.[lower-alpha 4] For centuries, Armenians have treasured the book as an enchanted treasure and have attributed to it miraculous powers. For instance, one passage has been read to the ill in expectation of a cure.[35][25] In the 21st century, psychiatrist Armen Nersisyan has claimed to have developed a unique type of therapy based on the book, which can cure many diseases, at least partly.[36]

The book's first complete publication was done by Voskan Yerevantsi in Marseille, France in 1673.[37][38] While the first complete commentary was published in Constantinople in 1745.[39] The work has been translated into English, Russian, French,[40] Arabic[41] and Persian.[42] There are three English translations of the book, with the first one appearing in 1977.[43][44][45]

Other works

Narekatsi also authored a number of other works. His first extant work is a commentary on the Song of Songs («Մեկնութիւն երգոց երգոյն Սողոմոնի», Meknutiun yergots yergoyn Soghomoni), written in 977, the year he was ordained a priest.[46][27] Ara Baliozian considers it a prose masterpiece.[25] There is an English translation of the commentary by Roberta Ervine.[47] The commentary was written at the behest of prince Gurgēn-Khach‘ik Artsruni (Գուրգէն-Խաչիկ Արծրունի) of Vaspurakan.[48] Gregory makes frequent use of St. Gregory of Nyssa's Letters on the Song of Songs, though as Ervine points out, he does not slavishly follow Nyssen's reading.[49] The commentary contains explicit condemnation of Tondrakian practices and may have been commissioned to counter heretical teachings attributed to the Tondrakians on marriage and sexuality.[50]

Although the commentary on the Song of Songs is Gregory's only surviving complete commentary on a biblical book, there is also a single extant manuscript of a commentary on chapters 38 and 39 of the book of Job.[51] A monograph by Arousyak T'amrazyan is devoted to this commentary.[52]

Gregory later wrote hymns, panegyrics on various holy figures, homilies,[27][18] numerous chants and prayers that are still sung today in Armenian churches.[25] Many of the festal odes and litanies as well as the panegyrics (ներբողք) have been translated and annotated by Abraham Terian.[53] While there is a long tradition of panegyrics and encomia in classical Armenian literature that closely adhere to the Greek rhetorical conventions of this genre, scholars have noted that Narekatsi often departs from the standards of this tradition and innovates in interesting and distinctive ways.[54] Of particular importance for the understanding of his Mariological teachings are the two recensions of the encomium on the Holy Virgin.[55] In these he affirms the doctrines of Mary's bodily Assumption (Վերափոխումն), perpetual virginity, and perhaps the immaculate conception.[56]

The encomium on the Holy Virgin was written as part of a triptych requested by the bishop Step'anos of Mokk'. The other two panegyrics forming this set are the History of the Holy Cross of Aparank',[57] which commemorates the donation of a relic of the True Cross to the monastery of Aparank' by the Byzantine emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII, and the Encomium on the Holy Cross.[58] By focusing on the cross, both of these panegyrics counter Tondrakian rejection of veneration of the cross and other material objects.[59] Here again, as in the rest of Gregory's corpus, we see that the saint defends orthodoxy against the Tondrakians and other heretical movements. Gregory also wrote a panegyric on St. Jacob of Nisibis (Սուրբ Յակոբ Մծբնացի), a fourth century Syriac bishop who has been and remains today highly esteemed among Armenians.[60] Finally, there is an encomium on the Holy Apostles.[61]

Narekatsi also authored around two dozen tagher (lays or odes), personal poems that are the first religious poems in Armenian literature, and spiritual songs called gandz, both in verse and prose.[62][63] Abraham Terian has translated many of Gregory's tagher into English.[64] Narekatsi also composed music for his odes, but they are not considered sharakans (chants).[62]

Outlook and philosophy

"Narekatsi was the first in Armenian literature to express nature in its full texture and color; man was found to be the greatest of nature's adornments."

 —Srbouhi Hairapetian[65]

The central idea of Narekatsi's philosophy is eternal salvation relying solely upon faith and divine grace, and not necessarily upon the institutional church, in which Narekatsi's views are similar to those of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. This interpretation of Narekatsi as a precursor of Protestantism has more recently been challenged.[66] Narekatsi is believed to have been suspected of heresy and being sympathetic to the Paulicians and Tondrakians—two major sects in medieval Armenia.[67] He notably wrote a treatise against the Tondrakians in the 980s,[68] possibly to clear himself of accusations of being sympathetic to their movement.[62] In the treatise he states some of his theological views.[69] Although Narekatsi does not mention the Tondrakians in the Book of Lamentations, some scholars have interpreted certain chapters as containing anti-Tondrakian elements.[70] Other scholars have pointed out that the Book of Lamentation is dominated by the theme of the centrality of the sacraments, especially baptism, reconciliation, and the Eucharist, and thus directly opposes Tondrakian deprecation of the sacraments.[71] In his struggle against the antinomian Tondrakians, Narekatsi followed his predecessor at the monastery of Narek: his great-uncle Anania, who was condemned for supposedly Tondrakian beliefs.[17]

According to Ara Baliozian Narekatsi broke from Hellenistic thought, which was dominant among the Armenian intellectual elite since the 5th-century golden age.[25] He was instead deeply influenced by Neoplatonism.[72] In fact, the Narek school was instrumental in instilling Christian Neoplatonism in Armenian theology. Namely, Christian Neoplatonic concepts such as divinization, the attainment of the power of spiritual vision or discernment through penitential purification of the inner and outer man, and of a symbolic exegetical methodology.[73] He may have been influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a pivotal author in Christian Neoplatonism, although this view has been criticized.[74][75] Soviet philologist Vache Nalbandian argued that Narekatsi's outlook is essentially anti-feudal and humanistic.[76]

The tone of the Book of Lamentations has been compared to that of Confessions by Augustine of Hippo.[77] Some modern scholars have compared Narekatsi's worldview and philosophy to those of later Sufi mystic poets Rumi and Yunus Emre,[78][79][80] and 19th century Russian writers Fyodor Dostoevsky[81] and Leo Tolstoy.[82] Michael Papazian, a scholar of Narekatsi, opined that he is "what you’d get if you crossed Augustine and James Joyce. But his spirituality is also infused with the simple piety of the Desert Fathers; and, although he lived before him, there’s an element of St. Francis in him, too. He’s a synthesis of so many strands of Christian tradition."[83]


Narekatsi was the first major Armenian lyrical poet[23] and is considered the most beloved person in Armenian Christianity.[18] Robert W. Thomson described him as the "most significant poet of the whole Armenian religious tradition,"[27] while Jos Weitenberg declared him the "most outstanding theological, mystical and literary figure of Armenian culture."[69] James R. Russell lists Narekatsi as one of the three visionaries of the Armenian tradition, along with Mesrop Mashtots and Yeghishe Charents.[84] Agop Jack Hacikyan et al. note that through his "lively, vibrant, and highly individual style" Narekatsi shaped, refined, and greatly enriched Classical Armenian through his works.[46] According to Hrachik Mirzoyan, Narekatsi created up to 2,500 new Armenian words, although many of which are not actively used.[85]

According to Hacikyan et al. Narekatsi "deserves to be known as one of the great mystical writers of medieval Christendom."[30] Vrej Nersessian considers Narekatsi a "poet of world stature" in the "scope and breadth of his intellect and poetic inventiveness, and in the brooding, visionary quality of his language"—on a par with St Augustine, Dante, and Edward Taylor.[29] This view has been echoed by Levon Zekiyan.[86] Armenian-born Russian critic Karen A. Stepanyan writes that Narekatsi's genius makes him comparable with Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, and Dostoevsky.[87]


France-based Western Armenian writer Shahan Shahnour has been Narekatsi's most prominent critic.[85] Shahnour targeted him in his novel Retreat Without Song (Նահանջը առանց երգի, published in 1929) through one of his characters. The latter describes the Book of Lamentations as "the most immoral, unhealthy, poisonous book, a work that had debilitated the Armenians as a nation. The Armenians remain defeated in trying to emulate Grigor's miserable, maimed soul."[88][89]

Paruyr Sevak opined that the Narek has not been read by Armenians as much it has been kissed.[85]


File:Moscow Armenian cathedral Narekatsi.jpg
A bas-relief of Gregory of Narek on the wall of the Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Moscow. He is depicted as holding the Book of Lamentations with "Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart" engraved on it.

Armenian churches

Gregory of Narek is a saint of both the Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic churches. His feast is celebrated on the second Saturday of October, during the Feast of the Holy Translators (Սուրբ Թարգմանչաց, Surb T’argmanchats). Dedicated to him, Mesrop Mashtots, Yeghishe, Movses Khorenatsi, David the Invincible, and Nerses Shnorhali, it was declared a national holiday in 2001.[90] His relic is preserved at the Treasury Museum of the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. It was brought out to Etchmiadzin Cathedral on the feast in 2012.[91] Several churches built in Armenia in the 21st century have been named after him.[lower-alpha 5] The St. Gregory of Narek Armenian Apostolic Church in Richmond Heights, Ohio, near Cleveland, was built in 1964.[94] The Armenian Catholic Diocese of Buenos Aires is called the Eparchy of Saint Gregory of Narek.[95]

Catholic Church

File:Saint Gregory Of Narek.jpg
A mosaic depicting Narekatsi, St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican[96]

Narekatsi was often mentioned by Pope John Paul II (1978–2005). In his 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater the Pope called him "one of the outstanding glories of Armenia."[97] Article 2678 of Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by John Paul II in 1992, mentions the tradition of prayer in his works.[98] John Paul II referred to him in addresses in 2000,[99] 2001,[100] and 2002.[101] In his February 18, 2001 Angelus address John Paul II described him as "one of Our Lady's principal poets" and "the great doctor of the Armenian Church".[102]

It was announced in February 2015 that Gregory of Narek would be named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis.[37][103] On 12 April 2015, on Divine Mercy Sunday, during a Mass for the centennial of the Armenian Genocide at St. Peter's Basilica, Pope Francis officially proclaimed Gregory of Narek as Doctor of the Church[3] in attendance of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II, Catholicos of Cilicia Aram I, and Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni.[104] He became the 36th and the first Armenian Doctor of the Church.[105] He is also the "second saint coming out of the Eastern Church" to become a Doctor[106] and the only Doctor "who was not in communion with the Catholic Church during his lifetime."[107]

During a Mass on June 25, 2016 in Vartanants Square in Gyumri, Francis stated that he "wished to draw greater attention" to Gregory of Narek by making him a Doctor of the Church.[108] In Yerevan's Republic Square Pope Francis suggested that Gregory can "be defined as a 'Doctor of Peace'."[109]

St. Gregory's proclamation as a Doctor of the Church was commemorated by the Vatican City state with a postage stamp put into circulation on September 2, 2015.[110][111] On 5 April 2018 a two-meter-high bronze statue of Narekatsi, erected by Davit Yerevantsi, was unveiled at the Vatican Gardens by Mikael Minasyan, Armenia's Ambassador to the Holy See. The inaugural ceremony was attended by Pope Francis, Armenia's President Serzh Sargsyan, Armenian Apostolic leaders Karekin II and Aram I.[112][113]

Saint Gregory being given the title of Doctor of the Church was not an equipollent canonization since he had already been listed as a saint for 27 February in the 2001 and 2004 editions of the Martyrologium Romanum, where he is defined as "monk, doctor of the Armenians, distinguished for his writings and mystic science."[7][not in citation given] The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments established an optional memorial for him on this date on the General Roman Calendar.[114][115]


Literary influence

Narekatsi influenced virtually all Armenian literature that came after him. Grigor Magistros Pahlavuni (c. 990–1058) is considered his direct literary successor.[116] Scholars have noted Narekatsi's influence on Armenian poets—medieval and modern ones alike. He inspired prominent medieval poets Hovhannes Imastaser (c. 1047–1129),[117] Nerses Shnorhali (1102–1173) and Frik (c. 1230–1310),[8] and in the modern period, Sayat-Nova (1712–95), Hovhannes Tumanyan (1869–1923),[117] Misak Metsarents (1886–1908),[118] Daniel Varoujan (1884–1915),[118] Siamanto (1878–1915),[119][118] Yeghishe Charents (1897–1937),[8] and Paruyr Sevak (1924–1971).[120]

Sevak called the Book of Lamentations a "temple of poesy, on which the destructive action of time has had no effect."[35] Charents lauds the "hallowed brows" of Narekatsi and Nahapet Kuchak in his 1920 poem "I Love My Armenia" («Ես իմ անուշ Հայաստանի»).[121] In another poem ("To Armenia"), Charents lists Narekatsi next to Nerses Shnorhali and Naghash Hovnatan.


Narekatsi depicted on a 2001 stamp of Armenia.

Narek (Western Armenian: Nareg) is highly popular male first name among Armenians. In 2018 it was the second most common name given to baby boys.[122] It originates from the village and monastery of Narek and owns its popularity to Gregory of Narek and the Book of Lamentations, popularly known as "Narek."[123] The village of Narek in Armenia's Ararat Province was named after Narekatsi in 1984.[124]

The Narekatsi Professorship of Armenian Language and Culture, established in 1969, is the oldest endowed chair of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).[125] In Yerevan, a public school (established in 1967 and renamed in 1990) and a medical center (established in 2003) are named after Narekatsi.[126][127] Narekatsi is depicted on a postage stamp issued by Armenia in 2001.[128] The Naregatsi Art Institute (Նարեկացի Արվեստի Միություն),[129] has its headquarters in Yerevan, Armenia (since 2004) and a center in Shushi, Karabakh (since 2006).[130]

A statue of Narekatsi was erected in Yerevan's Malatia-Sebastia district in 2002.[131] A large stone resembling an old manuscript with inscribed lines and images from the Book of Lamentations was unveiled in the Narekatsi quarter of Yerevan's Avan district in 2010.[132]

Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke composed music for the Russian translation of the Book of Lamentations in 1985.[133]



  1. Ms. 1568, kept at the Matenadaran, in Yerevan, Armenia. It was created by Grigor Mlichetsi at the monastery of Skevra, near Lambron, in the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. The Armenian text reads ՍԲՆ ԳՐԻԳՈՐ ՃԳՆԱՒՈՐ "St. Gregory the Hermit".[1][2]
  2. Also transliterated as Narekac'i. Western Armenian pronunciation: Krikor Naregatsi.
  3. Latinized: Gregorius Narecensis;[9] Italian: Gregorio di Narek[10]
    • Agop Jack Hacikyan et al.: "it is accorded an importance second only to that of the Bible itself."[30]
    • Vahan Kurkjian: "Narek, the Book of Prayer, was once regarded with veneration but little short of that accorded to the Bible itself."[24]
    • Vrej Nersessian: "After the Bible and the Book of Lamentations (Narek) of Grigor Narekatsi, 'Jesus the Son' was the most widely read book among the Armenians..."[33]
    • Robert W. Thomson: "Indeed, this book is often known simply as 'Narek', and it traditionally held a place in the Armenian household hardly less honourable than that of the Bible."[18]
    • Armenian Catholic independent researcher and writer Nareg Seferian said, describing it as "a mystical prayer book," only "second to the Bible as a holy work."[34]
  4. e.g. churches in Alaverdi (completed in 2001),[92] Vanadzor (completed in 2005) and Armavir (completed in 2014)[93]


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Further reading

External links