Lindisfarne Gospels 4

This is the second initial page for Matthew and begins the narrative of Christ’s birth. It is the beautiful Chi Rho page.

The chi rho symbol has many forms based on anything from this asymmetric sweeping chi to the simple upright cross seen in the previous post. The chi itself has a history much longer than its name – chi.
The letter chi has the same shape as one form of the letter taw in the old Hebrew (Phoenician) script. As the letter tau, it was simply a ‘mark’ or a brand, the seal of the Hebrew scriptures and the anointing mark or crismon of the early Christian church. As either + or x it has endured as one of the oldest multivalent symbols of civilization.
The greatest danger is that we will read into this mark, x or +, either too little or too much. Here is the verse “And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matt. 16:16 in Canadian Syllabics.

People viewing the word xmas, which also contains this representation of Christ might feel that they are looking at something which belittles Christ instead of realizing that this symbol represents a continuity of representation over 2000 years old.

On the other hand, one might read into the symbol a meaning which was never intended. There has been some discussion around this mark in the margin of the Dead Sea Scrolls, beside Isaiah 41:8 – 11.

Does it have some religious significance or is it just a mark? Sometimes one has to be willing to accept that this mark can mean either Christ, or consecration, or a signature, or the wrong answer, or a ballot vote, or a kiss, or anointing, or branding, or the mathematical symbols of x or +, – or just a mark. It can be the sign of dedication, of possession, of affection, of illiteracy, of fulfillment, or of sacrifice.

In translation it is sometimes a judgement call as to when information is incidental and when it is meaningful. Communication is sadly imperfect in this life; it is a system of representation, nothing less and nothing more. It is not meaning itself. In the words of Paul,
    For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Cor. 13:12.
The scribe of the Lindisfarne Gospels was thought to be so aware of our human imperfection that he left parts of the manuscript unfinished, perhaps to represent this aspect of our humanity – our inability to create perfect representation, perhaps it was modesty. Look again at the unfinished and unpainted letters below the Chi Rho in the Lindisfarne image at the top of the page.
Here is the symbol in Unicode, first as the khi ro and then as the tau ro, both in the Coptic range. The chi rho also exists.
Addendum: In Coptic the chi ro and the tau ro occur as distinct and separate ligatures. However, in Old English manuscripts this symbol has been identified as a chi rho by Michelle Brown. I apologize if I gave the wrong impression.

9 Comments

  1. Peter Kirk
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    The greatest danger is that we will read into this mark, x or +, either too little or too much.

    I think you are reading too much into it. First, surely there is no relationship between old Semitic taw and Greek chi and its relative Latin “x”. Rather, it is Greek tau and Latin “t” which are derived from Semitic taw, and indeed Latin “t” still has the cross shape in some fonts. Chi was added to the alphabet by the Greeks, but is probably a variant of ksi which is derived I think from Semitic samekh.

    Meanwhile Greek chi is usually symbolic of Christ, not of the cross on which he was crucified. The upright crosses you showed in part 3 may represent the cross of Christ, but I don’t think they are chis or X’s. Indeed they are more like Coptic “tau ro” than “khi ro”, but sometimes without the ro part, and the Coptic names used in Unicode are significant.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    First, surely there is no relationship between old Semitic taw and Greek chi and its relative Latin “x”.

    That is my point. They are just marks that happen to look alike and in some cases are interpereted in like manner.

    The taw, represented as either x or +, was a mark or a brand, and the + is the crismon of the Greek church. The crismon was called a ‘seal’ by the early church. There is an association, which I cannot define and may very well be complete happenstance. I won’t disagree with that.

    However, the upright symbol which is called the Coptic tau-ro, is very similar to the symbol called the chi-rho in the Lindisfarne manuscript. I simply see that the symbols for cross and chi and tau are so basic, so elemental that they have become confused with each other.

    These different forms are all identified as the chi-rho. This is not an authoritative source but it does illustrate a range of forms, all called chi-rho. And no I do not think that the names in unicode are significant, they are just pragmantic handles.

    This is a compilation of instances of these symbols. I am not trying to outline an historic development. Far from it. But throughout history these symbols recur and are multivalent.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    I believe that Saint Andrews cross has the chi form and is encoded as such in unicode, although it is officially called the saltire.

    I think that you have separated out these symbols into different categories according to their form, whereas reality is a lot more fluid. There is an overlapping of form and meaning between the tau, the chi and the cross. IMO

    But in modern mathematics we are not allowed to do that. Although 2+2=2×2, 3+3 does not equal 3×3.

  4. Peter Kirk
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    the symbol called the chi-rho in the Lindisfarne manuscript

    Who calls it this? Your main image in post 4 is of course of the Greek letters chi and rho separately. But the first symbol on each line of the images in post 3 is not a chi-rho symbol, although chi and rho appear separately in the first of these images.

    a range of forms, all called chi-rho

    Who is actually calling all these forms chi-rho, apart from The Gungywamp Society which seems to be a decidedly questionable group? I agree that the “St Andrew’s Cross” is commonly called a cross, but not officially.

    See also the description of the Coptic tau ro symbol as “probably an original ligature of the two letters tau ro” in this Unicode proposal, page 4; the originally proposed name COPTIC CAPITAL LETTER RO WITH STROKE was apparently, and sensibly, changed to COPTIC SYMBOL TAU RO, i.e. “⳨”.

    It seems to me that we have two distinct signs here, which are confused only by non-experts. But then I don’t claim to be an expert myself.

    According to Wikipedia, the chi-rho symbol is also known as the “labarum”.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    Yes, the chi rho has a long history as Contantine’s labarum which I wasn’t going to go into, but I am glad you mentioned it.

    However, I am confidnet that the upright cross with rho is a chi-rho and was described as such in one of the resources I read on the Lindisfarne manuscript. I just can’t find it at the moment.

    But obviously I am not the only one with this confusion if it is one.

    If it is not a chi rho in the manuscript preceding the name of the gospel writers what would you suggest – that the scribes had put in a tau rho. No, I think they are the same symbol, but I will look up my original reference.

    IMO they are the same symbol but are considered as two different ones by non-experts. ;-) But I am not sure.

  6. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

    I have revised Lindisfarne 3 to add this information about Michelle Brown.

    In the Unicode proposal we see the abbreviation of stauros (cross) with a tau ro, so we know the symbol certainly exists.

    However, the question is rather what did the Lindisfarne scribes think they were writing – chi rho or tau rho. The problem with tau ro is that it doesn’t function as the initial letters for stauros, so I don’t see how tau ro could become an alternate symbol for a cross. I would like to see more on that.

    I would agree there are two separate symbols but for the Lindisfarne scribes they are variants of the same symbol.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Peter,

    This is my authority and reference,

    Michelle P. Brown is curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library. She has lectured internationally, has taught for the University of London on history, art history and palaeography and is a co-founder of the Research Centre for Illuminated Manuscript Studies at the Courtauld Institute.

    She writes about the lettering for Lucas vitulus,

    If you then look in the lettering itself you can find at the very top left written in letters of gold, a chi-rho, the symbol of Christ, the first two letters of Christ in Greek and then the words lucas and vitulus, the calf, again symbolising the fact that the evangelist and his gospel are representatives of Christ and actually symbolise part of Christ’s ministry.

    She writes this about the sign which I called the chi rho.

    (Sorry, my comments are out of order since I deleted one.)

  8. Peter Kirk
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    However, the question is rather what did the Lindisfarne scribes think they were writing – chi rho or tau rho. The problem with tau ro is that it doesn’t function as the initial letters for stauros, so I don’t see how tau ro could become an alternate symbol for a cross.

    Clearly tau-rho is not an abbreviation for stauros in Greek, still less for crux in Latin, the language of the Lindisfarne gospels. It is at least possible that it became a symbol for the cross originally in Coptic speaking Egypt, and spread across the Roman empire as such, even as far as England by the late 4th century (the Bagshot jet ring). Such a spread would have been feasible in the 4th century in a way which it never would have been in any succeeding centuries.

    I note by the way that the use of the rho cross before a personal name (of one of the Evangelists, not of Christ) is reminiscent of the modern British practice of writing a cross (sometimes typeset as a plus sign “+”, sometimes as a dagger “†”) before the name of a bishop, at least of the Church of England. I suspect that there is a continuity of usage there, with this cross being a simplified version of the Lindisfarne rho cross. But this would need some investigation.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy
    Posted March 5, 2007 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    I mentioned stauros because that is the context of the tau ro in the Unicode document – it is a ligature and makes sense that tau ro would be a common combination of letters.

    Yes, I think that there is a continuity with using the cross before a bishop. I will look in the manuscript again for that.


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