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Friday, February 14, 2014

Saint Cyril and Methodius - February 14

Saints Cyril and Methodius 
February 14

Saint Valentine shares his feast day with two brothers, Saints Cyril and Methodius.  Born in Thessalonica they began a mission to Moravia (present day Czech Republic) in response to the request of Prince Ratislav for someone to explain the Christian faith to his people in their own language. 

Cyril and Methodius set about translating the Scriptures into the Old Slavonic language, using an alphabet devised by Cyril which led to the creation of a Slavonic liturgy.   

The story of Saint Cyril and Methodius is depicted in a painting by Alphonse Mucha entitled Introduction of Slavonic Liturgy in Great Moravia:  To Praise the Lord in Our Native Tongue. It is described in the following excerpt from the February 2014 Magnificat by Father Michael Morris, O.P. 

In the spring of 1939, Nazi forces invaded Czechoslovakia.  One of the first citizens to be arrested in Prague and interrogated by the Gestapo was the celebrated artist Alfons Mucha, who popularized the style known as Art Nouveau.  He was held suspect for his staunch nationalism and for a series of monumental canvases that proudly depicted the history of the Slavic people.

The sufferings endured by the artist for the pride he felt in his ethnic and national identity were similar to those endured by Saints Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century, when they strove to gain recognition for the Slavonic language and its culture against German opposition.

Cyril and Methodius were brothers. Their father was an officer stationed in Thessalonica, Greece, where many Macedonian Slavs settled.  In 862, Ratislav, the ruler of Moravia, sought a delegation that would ensure political and ecclesiastical autonomy for his Slavic subjects through education in their own tongue. Cyril and Methodius were chosen to achieve this end. The brother devised an alphabet and translated the Gospels which led to the creation of a Slavonic liturgy. 

The full force of German opposition was then directed against the brothers.  The Bavarian clergy who were living in Monavia denounced Cyril and Methodius.  The brothers then made their way to Rome to seek papal approbation for their cause.  The newly elected Pope Adrian II received them and approved the Slavonic liturgy, and Mass was celebrated in their native tongue in Saint Peter's Basilica. 

Before the brothers left Rome, Cyril died and was buried in the Basilica of San Clemente.  Methodius then continued with the mission to the Slavic people, but continually suffered attacks from the king of Bavaria, Louis the German, and his bishops.  

Mucha's canvas above, the second one he painted in his epic series of twenty, measures twenty feet high and twenty-six feet wide.  Mucha credited the actions taken by Saints Cyril and Methodius as the essential cornerstone of the emergence of the Slavic nation.  

In Mucha's painting the hooded spirit of Cyril is depicted floating in the sky.  In a protective gesture, with outstretched arms he shields the cowering Slavs who are being oppressed by the heavily vested Frankish clergy enthroned above them.  

Beneath the figure of Cyril stands his brother Methodius with a long white beard.  He is supported by two of his kneeling disciples as the papal legate reads a proclamation to the court of the newly crowned prince of Moravia, declaring Methodius as the archbishop of Moravia, with permission to practice the Slavonic liturgy. 

When Methodius died in 885, conflict with the Germans broke out again, and many Slavs fled to Russia and Bulgaria.  The rulers of those kingdoms of exile are depicted in the air, standing over the assembled court of Moravia's new prince. 

A recurring figure appears in Mucha's epic series:  the young man with clenched fist, symbolizing strength and resolve, who holds in his other hand a circle, representing unity. 

After Mucha's death, his countrymen suffered through Nazism and Communism.  In 1980, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Pope John Paul II, himself a Slav, declared Saints Cyril and Methodius the co-patrons Europe.  (Excerpt from February Magnificat by Father Michael Morris, O.P.)

For devotional items related to the Catholic Church 

Cyril and Methodius - Jan Matejko
Cyril and Methodius - Icon by Zograf
Introduction of Slavonic Liturgy in Great Moravia: To Praise the Lord in Our Native Tongue - by Alphonse Mucha (National Gallery's Veletrzni Palace, Prague, Czech Republic) 

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