One of the most spectacular displays of ornamented text in early Irish manuscripts is the Chi-Rho page in the Book of Kells (fig. 1). These elaborately decorated initials are found not only in luxury volumes such as the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels (fig. 2a), the Codex Aureus (fig. 2b) and the Lichfield Gospels (fig. 2c), but also in Irish pocket Gospels like our Book of Mulling (see previous post) and Book of Dimma (see previous post).
The chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ) are the first two initials of Christ’s name as written in Greek. This monogram for Christ was used widely in the Christian West. Ancient sources attributed the diffusion of the symbol to its adoption as a military standard by the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine.1 Subsequently, it became a symbol of authority, both sacred and secular.
The Chi-Rho was inscribed on the shield carried by Justinian’s soldiers in his sixth- century mosaic portrait at San Vitale in Ravenna (fig. 3). Universal recognition of the sign is attested by its survival on early medieval stone monuments from the Mediterranean to Britain and Ireland. Insular examples include a pillar from Kirkmadrine in Galloway, Scotland (fig. 4a)2 and Drumaqueran in Co. Antrim, Ireland (fig. 4b).3
Often, the monogram of Christ also employed the Greek letters alpha (Α) and omega (Ω). These were the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and symbolically alluded to Christ as the beginning and end of all things. Archbishop Theodore of Ravenna was laid to rest in a reused sarcophagus of the fifth century that featured Christ’s initials along with the alpha and omega letters in the center roundels (fig. 5).4 The single remaining painting in our project manuscript, Codex Usserianus Primus (see previous post), is likewise a cross incorporating the monogram of Christ with the additional Greek characters (fig. 6).
While the monogram in Usserianus Primus occurs at the end of the Gospel of Luke, the symbol was more typically placed in Matthew’s Gospel. This is where the initials are found in our other project manuscripts (figs. 7a-c). Special attention was given to the beginning of Matthew’s text in Insular Gospel books.5 The large-scale and ornately decorated Chi-Rho was positioned at beginning of Matthew’s narrative for the nativity of Christ. The phrase in the text that it initiates, Christi autem generatio sic erat, marks the point when Christ entered the world. The monogram serves as a visual equivalent for a divine presence.
- Eusebius of Ceasarea, ‘On the Life of Constantine,’ I.31, in P. Schaff and H. Wace (eds.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 1 (Buffalo, NY, 1890.) English translation available here. Eusebius will also be remembered as the architect of the canon tables (see previous post)
- K. Forsyth, ‘Hic Memoria Perpetua: the inscribed stones of sub-Roman southern Scotland,’ in S.M. Foster and M. Cross (eds.), Able Minds and Practised Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph Series, 23 (2005), pp. 113-134. For more, see H.E. Maxwell, ‘The Crosses of Kirkmadrine: Discovery of the Missing Third Stone,’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland, 51 (1917), 199-207. PDF available here.
- For more on the Drumaqueran Stone, see: A. Hamlin, ‘A Chi-Rho-Carved Stone at Drumaqueran, Co. Antrim,’ Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 35 (1972), 22-28. Further Chi-Rho marked stones are known in Britain and Ireland. For example, traces of the monogram have been detected on the Latinus Stone at Whithorn, available here.
- E.M. Schoolman, ‘Reassessing the Sarcophagi of Ravenna,’ Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 77 (2013), 49-67.
- Jennifer O’Reilly, ‘Patristic and Insular Traditions of the Evangelists: Exegesis and Iconography of the Four-Symbols Page,’ in A.M. Luiselli Fadda and E. Ó Carragáin, eds., Le Isole Britanniche e Roma in Età Romanobarbarica, (Rome, 1998), pp. 49-94.