The First Symbol
Dr. James Emery White
- 2011 Oct 10
I recently had the good fortune of seeing the exhibit “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe” at the British Museum in London.
For medieval Christians, contact with relics of Christ and the saints provided a unique bridge between earth and heaven. The relics themselves were often ordinary objects – a bone, a fragment of clothing – but they held great spiritual value.
Namely because of whose bone it might have been, or who the clothing had belonged to.
I was able to “see” such things as wood from the True Cross, hair from the apostle John, milk from Mary’s breast, and a thorn from the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head. I say “see” because by the time of the Reformation, many shared Calvin’s skepticism about relics in general: “How do we know that we are venerating the bone of a saint and not the bone of some thief, or of an ass, or of a dog, or of a horse? How do we know that we are venerating the ring and the comb of the Virgin Mary rather than the baubles of some harlot?”
Yet many of the most precious relics were gathered early on by Helen, the mother of Constantine, from her trips to the Holy Land. For example, it was during one such trip in 326 that she discovered the True Cross.
Intriguingly, when such relics are allowed to be examined in more recent years, many bear the mark of authenticity. Consider the famed Tooth of St. John the Baptist; a dentist confirmed that it was indeed that of a thirty-year-old man from that era who ate a coarse diet.
The relics themselves were stored in ornate containers called “reliquaries”, made by the most skilled goldsmiths from the finest materials available. These relics would then serve as a personal focus for prayer, as well as with great ceremony in public rituals. Their locations became the destination of vast numbers of pilgrims.
I was struck by what dominated early Christian life in terms of image and symbol.
If I were to ask you for the central symbol of the Christian faith, you would understandably say, “The cross.”
And perhaps, today, it is.
It wasn’t to the first and earliest Christians.
The cross as a symbol came on to the scene later, blossoming during the medieval era, often as reliquaries to hold bits of wood from the True Cross. Called “speaking” reliquaries, the idea was that if the reliquary was to hold the bone of a hand, it was best to make your reliquary in the shape of a hand; if it was the heart of a saint, it was best to house it in a reliquary the shape of a heart.
Fragments of the True Cross were put into small crucifixes to represent what the reliquary held. But early on, no one was trying to put forward the cross itself as the symbol of the Christian faith.
And for good reason.
It would have been like putting forward the image of an electric chair, or a hangman’s noose, to honor a martyr in our day. The cross was not a work of art, much less something hung around your neck. It was a symbol of death and torture. Yes, Jesus died on a cross, but that didn’t elevate the cross to anything more than a dark reminder.
So what was the prominent Christian symbol? When you survey early Christian art, and specifically reliquaries and tombs, it is the name of Christ Himself.
Or at least the first two letters.
Here is what dominated early Christian symbolism and art:
The “X” is actually a reflection of the Greek letter “Chi,” and the “P” is the Greek letter “Rho.” Together, Chi-Rho was the first two letters of “Christ” in the Greek language. Often superimposed on each other, they became the symbol for “Christ” and, as a result, the Christian faith.
If the cross was involved at all, it was portrayed with the Chi-Rho situated prominently at the top, reflecting how the cross had been stripped of its associations with humiliation and instead has become a symbol of triumph. It was Christ’s triumph over and through the cross, not the cross itself, that was the point.
It made me think how, from time to time, some churches get asked why they don’t have a cross as part of their architecture, as if having a cross prominently displayed is what it means to be truly historically orthodox. Or as if a cross is the only or best way to properly acknowledge the Christian faith, and if you don’t have one, you must be playing a little fast or loose with your theology.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and to elevate the form of the cross to that level is more of a modern convention. No early Christian would have entered one of our buildings and asked about a cross. Why focus on the means of His death when the point was His resurrection and life?
So what might an early Christian who wandered into our churches wondered about?
Why isn’t there a Chi-Rho anywhere?
James Emery White
Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe, edited by Martina Bagnoli, Holger A. Klein, C. Griffith Mann and James Robinson (London: The British Museum Press, 2010).
John Calvin, Traite des reliques, ed. A Autin (Paris, 1921).
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