The chi rho symbol stands for the Greek letters X and P from the Greek word for Christ.
Chi Rho is a combination of the two Greek letters. The symbol has a Greek X placed over the stem of the letter P. Although the Greek letters look like the English letters ‘X’ and ‘P,’ they are spoken similarly to the ‘C’ and ‘R’ sounds in English. Chi and Rho in Greek mean Christos, implying Christ. It is the earliest form of Christogram and is known as Chrismon. A Christogram represents Jesus Christ in a symbolic form.
The symbol gained popularity in the 4th century AD. It was used by the Roman Emperor Constantine as his military standard. He wanted God’s protection during his battles. During his time, Chi Rho was also used on coins, medallions, rings, etc.
The pre-Christian version of Chi Rho symbolized Chreston, which meant something good. The meaning changed after the symbol was used to represent Christ.
Chi Rho is pronounced KEE-roe.
Origin of the Chi Rho
Chi Rho is a pre-Christian symbol. It can be traced back to the period between 246 and 222 BC in Egypt. The symbol was inscribed on coins during Ptolemy III Euergetes’s rule. It was also used by the Greeks and pagans to highlight important passages in the papyri.
It is found in the margins of older scriptures. It’s believed that Chi Rho was worshipped by pagans in Greece to bring good fortune. The Egyptians used the Chi Rho symbol in tau form, an alternative design where Rho’s loop is in reverse.
Chi Rho was incorporated into Latin texts with slight modifications after it was associated with Christianity. Abbreviations like XPo (Christo), XPs (Christus), and XPi (Christi) were created. The symbol also represents the cross (crucifixion scene) for some people. A few others said it symbolized a shepherd’s staff (Jesus being the Good Shepherd).
Christianity’s Use of the Chi-Rho Symbol
Roman Emperor Constantine (306–337 AD) was the first to use the Chi Rho symbol on the labarum in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. It took place on October 28, 213 AD. The emperor and his troops saw the sign in the sky a day before the battle.
He won the battle and believed that it was because of the symbol. A few months later, Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. Eusebius wrote about the emperor’s dream in the biography Life of Constantine.
Constantine I saw light over the sun when he prayed to God for protection in the war. He saw Greek characters forming Τούτῳ Νίκα. It means, ‘by/in this sign, you will conquer.’ It is famous in Latin as In Hoc Signo Vinces, similar to IHS, a monogram of Christ meaning, ‘Jesus, Savior of Mankind.’
He later had a dream where Christ asked him to use the symbol as a defense against enemies. The symbol became associated with God’s protection and victory since the Battle of Milvian Bridge.
Eusebius also mentioned that the emperor’s children configured the military standard with the symbol. Lactantius, a Latin Church father and advisor of Constantine, also wrote about using the symbol on soldiers’ shields for protection. A transverse bar was laid over a long spear to form a cross. It was fixed on a wreath of gold studded with precious stones.
Chi Rho is accompanied by alpha and omega on either side in Christian arts. These symbolize Jesus Christ as the beginning and the end. Yet, Chi Rho is not found anywhere in the Bible.
Chi-Rho to Represent Christ
The Greek word for Christos is ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. The Chi Rho symbol is formed by writing the first letter over the second. Chi Rho represents Christ’s rebirth after his crucifixion.
It soon became the official Imperial Regalia or Imperial Insignia, a symbol of the Holy Roman Emperor after Constantine made it popular. Archeologists found the symbol on the headgear of Late Roman soldiers, Christian sarcophagi, signet rings in Britain, frescos from the villa at Lullingstone, catacombs, and Vindolanda, Northern England.
The Book of Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells have an X as a symbol of the cross (crux decussate). The Insular Gospel books have XPI as decorations. However, Chi Rho is not found in its symbol form in the Gospel. The monogram of Chi Rho in the books of Kells from the late 8th century is an example of the symbol’s presence in the Middle Ages.
The symbol doesn’t belong exclusively to Catholics or Protestants. Both use the symbol on buildings, flags, banners, chalices, watches, etc. Churches use it to represent God’s victory.
Uses of Chi Rho Symbol
Chi Rho tattoo design has a religious significance for Christians. This popular symbol can be tattooed in different designs. Some opt for Chi Rho with alpha and omega. Some place it between a laurel wreath.
A few designs replace X with crossed swords to signify war, fight, or protection in a fight/ hunt. The symbol can also be surrounded by a favorite quote from the Bible or anything the person may like. Sailors combine Chi Rho with the anchor symbol (or use it on anchors) for God’s protection when sailing. Even fishermen use the symbol on their boats or gear.
There are lockets, bracelets, keychains, and other items with the Chi Rho symbol. Christians use it to show their faith. Non-Christians use it for symbolism or style.
Chi Rho has predominantly become a Christian symbol representing Christ, resurrection, and rebirth. The pagan symbolism of Chi Rho as good fortune is almost erased and mentioned only in passing.
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