Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Nomina Sacra

A Christogram is a combination of letters (a monogram) that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ. A monogram consists of linking overlapping letters or graphemes to form one symbol. Different types of Christograms are associated with the various traditions of Christianity. However, the most popular Christograms are IHS, INRI, and the Chi-Rho. Each of these Christograms represents Christ, and they are included among the so-called Nomina sacra (Latin: “Sacred names”) of Jesus. The Nomina sacra were abbreviated divine titles in early Greek language versions of Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Many early Christian manuscripts and monuments contain the Greek Christogram for the name ‘Jesus’, “IH” (iota-eta), spelled in Greek as ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (iota-eta-sigma-omicron-upsilon-sigma - Iēsous),). In the second century, it became common to also add the third letter of the name – sigma – giving one IHS. Note that here the Greek letter eta was transliterated as the letter H in the Latin-speaking West (Greek eta and Latin-alphabet H had the same visual appearance and shared a common historical origin), while the Greek letter sigma was either transliterated as the Latin letter C (due to the visually-similar form of the lunate sigma), or as Latin S (since these letters of the two alphabets wrote the same sound). Because the Latin-alphabet letters I and J were not systematically distinguished until the 17th century, “JHS” and “JHC” are equivalent to “IHS” and “IHC.”
Those who mistook the abbreviation IHS for an acronym, gave it pious interpretations in Latin such as Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus Saviour of Men), In Hoc Signo (vinces) – In this sign (you shall conquer) or In Hac Salus – In this (Cross) is Salvation. Some even created versions in English where “IHS” is interpreted as an abbreviation of “I Have Suffered” or “In His Service.” Such interpretations are known as backronyms.
Such “readings” of the nomina sacra are indeed interesting, because they are like theological poems; they are acrostic midrashes on Jesus’ name or on religious iconography. But they have nothing to do with the “real” meaning of the abbreviation. They represent meanings attached to the abbreviation which represent the ideas of the later readers of texts, and more commonly, of the later “readers” of paintings and representations of the cross and crucifixion.

Jesuit connections

In the fifteenth century one finds anagrams of Jesus and Mary in Spain, They crowned the fretted steeples of the Burgos Cathedral, sculptured on a gateway at Elgueta, and echoed in a thousand forms throughout Castile, Biscaya and Guipúzcoa. Ignatius’ grandmother, who had lived in the times and had heard the sermons of St Vincent Ferrer, put the letters IUHS at the beginning of her will.
In the time of Ignatius of Loyola it was not unusual for his Basque countrymen to put the name Jesus at the beginning of written documents. It was used by the notaries of Azpeitia, friends of Ignatius, in place of the customary flourishes in their writing.

In the Flos Sanctorum, which Ignatius had read during his convalescence, there is a legend of St Ignatius of Antioch, in whose heart, opened after his death, this monogram was found engraved in letters of gold

From his early extant letters [Barcelona 1524] it was Ignatius’ custom, which he kept throughout his life, to prefix his monogram (in its several variants): jhus, IHS, ihs, to many of his written communications. Ignatius used to write the abbreviation in four small letters crossing the upper stroke of the h with a bar: ihus (as in his ballot for the election of the general). He may have presumed, as many did, that the anagram was a shortening of the Latin name of Jesus, which in the Middle Ages many wrote as Ihesus. The symbol is also used in important documents, such as the first edition of the Spiritual Exercises.
After the approval of the Society of Jesus as a new religious order in the Church, the IHS has become an integral symbol of the Jesuit identity, expressing a complex history and a deep spiritual significance.
Ignatius wished the name of Jesus to be engraved in a conspicuous place in all houses of the Society, as its members “should not be called by any other name”. Polanco describes the laying of the first stone with the anagram of IHS inscribed on it over the main doors of the college of Gandía [1550] and the house of Barcelona [1553]. The monogram is found in stone on the facade of many a Jesuit church and school throughout the world, including the mother church of the Jesuits, the Church of the Gesú in Rome, which features a majestic “IHS” in its dome, and the basilica of Bom Jesu in Goa. One can find the “IHS” on the front of buildings in old city centres in Eastern Europe or in the jungle missions of Paraguay, usually indicating 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

IHS is prominent at Creighton.

Thanks to Fr. Schlegel.