Saint Cyril

    The brothers Saint Cyril and Methodius from Thessaloniki

Saint Cyril (Greek: Κύριλλος, Church Slavonic: Кирилъ) (827 - February 4, 869) was a Greek (i.e. Byzantine) monk, scholar, theologian, and linguist. He is best known today for his work in Christianising the Slavs and, with his brother Saint Methodius, is credited with devising the Glagolithic and rarely also with devising the Cyrillic alphabet. He was known during his life as Constantine; the name Cyril seems to have been given to him only shortly before his death or after his death.

7 See also

Early life

Cyril and Methodius were born in Thessaloniki, Greece, to a Greek drungarios (a military officer) named Leon and a Slavic mother. Cyril was reputedly the youngest of seven brothers, according to the Vita Cyrilli ("The Life of Cyril"). He is said to have given himself to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom at the age of seven, but at fourteen was made an orphan by the death of his parents.

An influential official, possibly the eunuch Theoctistes, brought him to Constantinople where he studied theology and philosophy. Photius is said to have been among his teachers; Anastasius mentions their later friendship, as well as a conflict between them on a point of doctrine. Cyril learned an eclectic variety of knowledge including astronomy, geometry, rhetoric and music.

However, it was in the field of linguistics that Cyril particularly excelled. Besides the Greek tongue of his society, he was fluent in Latin, Arabic and Hebrew. He may well also have learned the Slavonic language in his childhood; according to the Vita, the Byzantine Emperor Michael III stated that "all Thessalonians speak perfect Slavonic."

After the completion of his education Cyril took holy orders and became a monk. He seems to have held the important position of chartophylax, or secretary to the patriarch and keeper of the archives, with some judicial functions also. After six months' quiet retirement in a monastery he began to teach philosophy and theology.

Cyril also took an active role in relations with the other two great monotheistic religions, Islam and Judaism. He penned fiercely anti-Jewish polemics, perhaps connected with his mission to the Khazars, a tribe who lived near the Sea of Azov under a Jewish king who allowed Jews, Muslims, and Christians to live peaceably side by side. He also undertook a mission to the Arabs with whom, according to the Vita, he held discussions. He is said to have learned the Hebrew, Samaritan and Arabic languages during this period. The account of his life presented in the Latin Legenda claims that he also learned the Khazar language while in Chersonesos, in the Tauric Chersonese (today Crimea).

It has been claimed that Methodius also accompanied him on the mission to the Khazars, but this is probably a later invention. His brother had by this time become a significant player in Byzantine political and administrative affairs, and later became abbot of the famous monastery of Polychron.

Mission to the Slavs

In 862, Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia requested that the Emperor Michael III and the Patriarch Photius send missionaries to evangelize his Slavic subjects. His motives in doing so were probably more influenced by political than religious motives. Rastislav had become king with the support of the Frankish ruler Louis the German, but subsequently sought to assert his independence from the Franks. He is said to have expelled missionaries from the Roman Church and instead turned to Constantinople for ecclesiastical assistance and, presumably, a degree of political support.

The request provided a convenient opportunity to expand Byzantine influence, and the task was entrusted to Cyril and Methodius. Their first work seems to have been the training of assistants. In 863, they began the task of translating the Bible into the language now known as Old Church Slavonic and travelled to Great Moravia to promote it. They enjoyed considerable success in this endeavour. However, they came into conflict with German ecclesiastics who opposed their efforts to create a specifically Slavic liturgy.

It is impossible to determine with certainty what portions of the Bible the brothers translated. The New Testament and the Psalms seem to have been the first, followed by other lessons from the Old Testament. The Translatio speaks only of a version of the Gospels by Cyril, and the Vita Methodii only of the evangelium Slovenicum, though other liturgical selections may also have been translated. Nor is it known for sure which liturgy, that of Rome or that of Constantinople, they took as a source. They may well have used the Roman, as suggested by liturgical fragments which adhere closely to the Latin type.

The eponymous Cyrillic alphabet, which was based on the Greek uncial writing of the 9th century, has been traditionally attributed to Cyril's work. However, it is unclear whether Cyril himself was the originator of the script or whether his later followers may have devised it. On the other hand, it is generally accepted that he devised the Glagolitic alphabet, the latter fact being also confirmed explicitely by the papal letter Industriae tuae (880) approving the use of Old Church Slavonic, which says that the alphabet was "invented by Constantine the Philosopher".

Journey to Rome

In 867, Pope Nicholas I invited the brothers to Rome. Their evangelising mission in Moravia had by this time become the focus of a dispute with Theotmar, the Archbishop of Salzburg and bishop of Passau, who claimed ecclesiastical control of the same territory and wished to see it use the Latin liturgy exclusively. Travelling with the relics of Saint Clement and a retinue of disciples, they were warmly received in Rome on their arrival in 868.

The brothers were praised for their learning and cultivated for their influence in Constantinople. Their project in Moravia found support from Pope Adrian II, who formally authorized the use of the new Slavic liturgy. However, Cyril fell ill late in 868, retired to a monastery and after fifty days of illness died on February 14, 869. The Translatio asserts that he was made a bishop before his death, but there is little credible evidence for this.

The disciples of Cyril and Methodius continued the brothers' work in the Slavic lands but were expelled from Great Moravia in 885. They fled to the medieval First Bulgarian Empire to found important seminaries there, which later undertook the evangelization of northern Slavic lands such as Kievan Rus'. Over time, Cyrillic eventually spread through much of the Slavic world to become the standard alphabet in the Orthodox Slavic countries. Their evangelising efforts also paved the way for the spread of Orthodox Christianity throughout eastern Europe.

Cyril was canonized as a saint by the eastern Church, with the Roman Catholic Church canonizing him separately in 1880 along with Methodius. The two brothers are known as the "Apostles of the Slavs" and are still highly regarded in Orthodox Christianity. Cyril's feast day is celebrated on February 14 (Roman Church) or May 11 (Orthodox Church). The two brothers were declared "Patrons of Europe" in 1980.


  • This article includes content derived from the public domain Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914.
  • "Cyril and Methodius, Saints". The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2004
  • "Cyril and Methodius, Saints." Encyclopædia Britannica, 2005
  • Byzantine Missions among the Slavs. F. Dvornik (1970).


Cyril at Patron Saints Index

See also

Byzantine Empire

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