Symbols of Christ

In the early centuries of Christianity, artists faced a number of challenges in the visual depiction of Christian ideas.

  • The majority of early Christians were not members of the wealthy elite, and so not in a position to commission complex works of art.
  • Christianity was not recognized as an official religion until the early fourth century; this meant that Christians needed to worship in a discreet manner.
  • The second commandment ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image’ banned the worship of idols. Many early commentators interpreted this as a ban on depicting holy figures in their human form.

As a result a number of symbols were developed to express the Christian faith. Some of these continued to be used for centuries after their creation, and feature in the pages of the Book of Kells, adding an extra layer of meaning to its text and illustrations.

The cross

The most common, and easily recognisable, Christian symbol is the cross. This refers to the Christian belief that Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross to save mankind. In the Book of Kells, one whole page, fol. 33r, is dedicated to an image of the cross. This example has two arms, the second arm perhaps intended to reference the wooden board with the ‘title’ (Jesus Christ King of the Jews) nailed above Christ’s head when he was crucified. The eight large circles on the cross are perhaps a reference to the eight days of the build up to Christ’s death, and his subsequent resurrection (known as the Passion). Other more subtle allusions to the cross are found, for example, in the frames surrounding images of Jesus Christ and the evangelists, and in some of the lettering. A strange form of the letter M in the centre of fol. 285r also seems to reference the double-armed cross. This passage recounts how after being put to death, Jesus rose again from the dead (the Resurrection) (Luke 24:1).

Figures 1-3, from the Book of Kells, a page depicting a cross pattern, an image of St. John surrounded by crosses, and the letter M shaped in the form of a double cross, respectivelyFig 1. Cross page prefacing Matthew 1:18, the passage that announces the birth of Jesus Christ (fol. 33r) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 2. Four crosses frame the portrait of John (fol. 291v) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 3. The letter M, just below the centre of the page is shaped in the form of a double cross (fol. 285r) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

The Chi Rho

Chi (χ) and Rho (ρ) are the first two letters of the Greek word Christ. They were used universally as a shorthand for writing Christ’s name, and the abbreviation is used throughout the Book of Kells. The similarity of the χ to a saltire cross form instilled additional meaning in the word. The first mention of Christ’s name in the gospels on fol. 34r (Matthew 1:18) is adorned with a particularly lavish χ ρ; the χ outlined in yellow to emphasise its cross shape. The χ is also recalled in the layout of the text on fol. 124r which recounts Christ’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:38) and in the strange position of his arms on fol. 114r.

Figures 4-6, from the Book of Kells, two pages showing a large X, and an image of St. John, respectivelyFig 4. Although forming part of the text, the large X works better as an illustration of the cross (fol.34r) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 5. The X format of the text on (fol. 124r) alludes both to Christ’s name and the manner of his death. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 6. Christ’s arms form an X-shape, alluding to his name, while the frame around him includes more standard cross forms (fol. 114r). © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

The lozenge

The lozenge or diamond shape was used interchangeably with the cross in early Byzantine art. Its exact meaning is unclear, but its four corners may be an allusion to the classical concept of the tetragonus mundus (four square world) and its four elements earth, fire, water and air, four seasons etc., or the universe (created on the fourth day according to the Christian bible, Genesis 1:14-19). This interpretation may explain the use of a lozenge rather than the more standard letter form ‘o’ for the word ‘omnes’ (‘all’) on fol. 31r. In early Irish art the predominance of the lozenge form in the Gospel of St John has led to its interpretation as a symbol of Jesus Christ as Logos or the Word following the opening words of John’s Gospel ‘In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). In the Book of Kells the book held by John on fol. 291v is decorated with a lozenge and the four evangelist symbols that precede it are also arranged around a lozenge shape.

Figures 7-9, from the Book of Kells, a lozenge in the place of an 'O', an image of St. John, and an image of the evangelists around a lozenge, respectivelyFig 7. A large lozenge shape is used as a substitute for the letter O on (fol 31r) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 8. A lozenge decorates the cover of the gospel held by John (fol 291v) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 9. The image of the four evangelists that prefaces the gospel of John shows them positioned around a lozenge (fol 290v) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

Number symbolism

As seen above, the number eight and four were seen to have deeper, religious meanings. So too did other numbers. The grouping of various designs in threes in the Book of Kells has been interpreted by many as symbolic of the Trinity – God the father, God the son and God the Holy Spirit. Three-part designs are found, for example, in the groups of three dots used to decorate clothing, the ends of letters and the groups of spirals on fol. 34r.

Figures 10-12, from the Book of Kells, an image of an angel, an image of a dragon beside lines of text, and a series of spiral patterns, respectivelyFig 10. An angel’s clothes decorated with the three dot motif (fol. 7v) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 11. Groups of three dots decorate the ends of letters, and the pelt of the symbol of St Luke (fol. 201v) © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin. Fig 12. Triplets of spirals on (fol. 34r) decorating the χ ρ monogram of Christ’s name. © The Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

Activity!

  • Log onto the digital Book of Kells.
  • Choose one of the more densely ornamented pages and see how many of these symbols you can find.
  • In the comments section, describe what you find and reference the folio number so that other learners can see what you have found.

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The Book of Kells: Exploring an Irish Medieval Masterpiece

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