Throughout our history, Christian art has been used to teach about our faith. In centuries when illiteracy was common, icons, statues, frescoes and stained glass were the “catechism books” that taught biblical stories and theological lessons. You don’t have to delve too deeply into Christian art to see that lots of these images are adorned with abbreviation designed to clarify the message in the picture.
Probably the most common of these abbreviations is “IHS” In Greek this stood for Iesus Hemerteros Soter, or Jesus our Savior. The Latin equivalent was Iesus Homimum Salvator, or Jesus, Savoir of Humankind. Other interpretations of IHS are “In hoc salus,” or in this (cross) is salvation, or “In Hoc Signo,” “In this sign you will conquer,” from a vision reportedly received by the emperor Constantine in 313.
Another common abbreviation in Christian art is INRI, depicted on a plaque or sign affixed to the Cross. It means in Latin, “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum,” or Jesus Christ, King of the Jews. This is the sign that, according to Scripture, Pilate had placed on the cross.
Occasionally you may see the appreviation UIODG, in Latin “Ut in Omnibus glorificetur Deus”. This phrase, popular among the followers of St. Benedict, translates to “that God may be glorified in all things.”
Another abbreviation, seen frequently as a monogram on liturgical vestments and paraments, looks like PX, or really XP. These are really the Greek letters Chi and Rho. They are the equivalent of CH and R in English, and are a traditional abbreviation for Christ. This monogram is related to another common word that evolved from the Chi-Rho, the contraction “Xmas” for Christmas.
Christian art and iconography express the living faith of people through the centuries. Often the key to decoding these works of art and faith lies in understanding not just the scene and characters, but the backgrounds, props, and the inscriptions that serve as theological footnotes for careful observers.