A Christian Symbol: The Christogram

Endria Avdimetaj (Université du Luxembourg)

A conversation between a priest and an altar boy after mass. This discussion between the youth (16 year old) and the priest is imagined as if it took place during our contemporary era. In addition, and to make it more concrete, the church in question here is that of Saint-André de Sauveterre-de-Béarn, where you can see the symbol of the chrism on the second entrance.

(A)    Father, I have a question for you … what is this symbol located above the second door of the church?

(B)    This is the Christogram, my child.

(A)    What is the Christogram?

(B)    It is a symbol of Christianity that has existed for centuries.

(A)    But I thought the symbol of Christianity was the cross of Jesus. That’s what we’ve always been taught, right?

(B)    Yes, of course, my child, the cross of Jesus is the symbol of Christianity par excellence. It is found everywhere: in churches, on tombs, on ancient objects … But do you know that Christianity has different symbols such as the fish – ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ) –, several other types of crosses, the dove, the crown of thorns … and especially also this famous Christogram.

(A)    I’ve seen some of these! But this Christogram is new to me. Can you tell me a bit more about this symbol? Can you explain it?

(B)    Yes of course I will describe it, but also give you the most precise meaning. Let’s observe this Christogram more closely so that it is as concrete as possible. The Christogram is in fact the combination of two letters: the X (chi) and the P (rho) which are affixed one on the other. This is called a monogram. These two letters are the first of the word „Χριστός“ which means Christ.

(A)    But this word „Χριστός“, it’s Greek, no?

(B)    Yes, it is. During Antiquity, around the 4th century and when this sign appeared little by little, Greek was a widely spoken language, particularly in the east. Anyone who did not speak it was considered a ‘barbarian’. Moreover, if you observe this Christogram correctly, you can see that there are other letters also taken from the Greek alphabet. Do you see them?

(A)    I seem to see the first letter of the alphabet the „A“. I can’t make out the other one.

(B)    That’s right. The “A”, alpha, refers to the Apocalpyse of John, or the “Book of Revelations”, as we also call it. John describes the alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, which symbolize the whole: the beginning and the end. Besides, you can also notice that generally, this sign of Christogram is inscribed within a circle, representative of unity and divine perfection. On this example, it is possible to see these two symbols in addition, but know that this is not always the case. Sometimes, it is possible to observe only a simple Christogram without the circle nor these letters.

(A)    Interesting … And when did this sign appear? You told me it’s been around for centuries.

(B)    That is correct, since the time of the first Christian emperor, Constantine. According to legends, Constantine saw the symbol in a dream, a few hours before a very important battle. In his dream, it appeared in the sky, together with the words „In hoc signo vinces“ which means „By this sign you will conquer“. After his victory, Constantine then reproduced the Christogram on the coins, on the standards and the shields of his soldiers. The Christogram thus become the symbol of Christianity.

(A)    But how is it that the Christogram was used a lot at the beginning of the Christian era as you explain it to me and that over time, this symbol was replaced by the cross of Jesus? Why did it disappear?

(B)    Very good question. You should know, my boy, that the two symbols appear fairly quickly from the genesis of Christianity, but it is true that the Christogram has more success at the beginning. A first turn in favor of the cross occurs when Constantine’s mother, Helena, discovered the hiding place of the true cross of Christ in Jerusalem. From that moment on, the cross has a stronger symbolism because it recalls the necessary death of Christ so that he can rise again. It is in the resurrection that he saves humanity and allows men to access Salvation. So, where the Christogram is only initials, the cross had a stronger theological basis.

(A)    The fact that Christogram is not used too much nowadays, does it only concern our region of Western Europe?

(B)    Partly yes because in the East, this symbol has always been used. Indeed, the Christogram, as already said, comes from Greek … And in the west, not everyone spoke Greek! Although the cross is sometimes used in the west, it is less significant than in the east because of the proximity to the Greek language and its traditions. It is still less significant than the cross, but more prominent than in the west.

(A)    Well great… It allows me to learn more about all this symbolism of the Christian religion. I can now in turn give these explanations to other people who are interested or who ask.

Abb.: Christograms from the early Christian church complex, Trier (©Trier, MaD, Inv. Delta 487; Delta 531)