Chi Rho, Chrismon, Monogram of Christ, Labarum

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Chi and Rho are the first two letters (ΧΡ) of "Christ" in Greek ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. (Christos). Sometimes it is called the Monogram of Christ or Chrismon or Labarum. While it was used very early by persecuted Christians in the catacombs, when Constantine I was struggling to become emperor, he used the symbol at the front of his armies and was victorious (see below).

Catacomb pictures of Peter and Paul with the Chi-Rho symbol between them.
Gravestone for the boy Asellus. Catacomb picture of Peter and Paul with the Chi-Rho symbol between them. Marble catacomb inscription, Pio Cristiano: Vatican Museum
Chi-Rho symbol from catacombs
Chi-Rho symbol as part of a marble catacomb gravestone of Seberus, Pio Cristiano: Vatican Museum. Notice the Omega and Alpha symbols to the left and right of the Chi-Rho.

The Chi-Rho is often shown with the Greek letters Alpha (A) and Omega (lower case ώ or upper case Ω), the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Jesus refers to himself: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End." (Revelation 22:13).

Monogram of Christ, Vatican (Chi-Rho)
Monogram of Christ, Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican, undated. Notice the Alpha and Omega symbols as part of the Chi-Rho monogram.

The story goes that in In 312 AD, Constantine (ruled 306 - 337) was about to lead his army in a battle with his enemy Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge outside Rome. The winner would become emperor of the whole empire. Oiginally Constantine had been a pagan, but he was worried about the coming battle. He says he started to pray to the "Supreme God" for help.There was a sign in the sky "above the sun" and with it the words "conquer by this". That night in a dream he said he saw Jesus telling him to use the chi-rho sign "as a safeguard in all battles". Constantine ordered it to be put on his soldier's shields -- and won the battle. Eusebius writes about this symbol:

AE2 bronze coin issued by Magnentius in 353 AD.
Obverse of a bronze coin issued in 353 AD by Magnentius with the Chi-Rho symbol. Alpha and Omega are also shown. Larger image.
"Now it was made in the following manner. A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, (2) the symbol of the Saviour's name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its centre...." (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 1.31)

Chi-Rho in Book of Kells. Larger image.
 

The Chi-Rho also appears in a different form as a monogram (folio 344r) in the famous illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kells produced by Celtic monks about 800 AD. Also in the Book of Deer, the Book of Durrow, the Corpus Irish Gospel,

Chi-Rho, Alpha and Omega, Anchor, and leaf symbols from catacomb inscription
This copy of a catacomb inscription shows four symbols -- the Chi-Rho, Alpha and Omega, anchor, and leaf (unknown catacomb location). Notice that the Chi character is vertical, strongly suggesting the cross.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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