“Words Tinctured with Passion”. St Gregory of Nyssa’s In Canticum Canticorum and the Emergence of Affective Mysticism in Byzantine Hymnography

Andrew Mellas
PhD Candidate, University of Sydney

Abstract: St Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs Christianised the Stoic ideal of apatheia and spiritualised the erotic textuality of the Canticle. Nevertheless, far from eschewing all emotion, his hermeneutics paved the way for a transfiguration of the passions as a concept and the emergence of an affective mysticism in Byzantine hymnography. Unlocking the text’s spiritual sense, Gregory analogously read the lovers’ impassioned utterances as embodying a passion transcending earthly corporeality and touching divine eros. As allegory delves into the spiritual meaning of the Shulammite and her lover, human passion is anagogically immersed in divine passion and the mystical knowledge of the eschaton. This paper investigates the significance of Gregory’s In Canticum Canticorum for the history of emotions in Byzantium by examining its affinity with hymnography. It will particularly explore the nuptial metaphor in the Akathist Hymn and the transformation of passion in an epektasis of desire in St Romanos the Melodist’s kontakion on the harlot.