There are a few variations on the Christogram, a monogram representing the name of Jesus. One of the oldest, and probably most well-known still today is the Chi-Rho symbol which combines the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ.

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Panel from a Roman sarcophagus, ca. 350 CE

However, in the Latin Middle Ages, a different Christogram became more popular: IHS (with equivalent variations IHC, JHS, JHC, YHS…). These are the first letters of “Jesus” in Greek: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. There are countless ways of writing these various combinations. Sometimes the letters are clear and clean, but often flourishes are added, as well as a horizontal line on the ascender to form a cross.

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When I first learned about this Christogram, it reminded me of certain mysterious “letters” placed right in the middle of a Voynich “flower”. Like everything Voynich, these characters have been the subject of debate and speculation, with little consensus.

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In the image above, you can compare the scribble to the standard Voynichese text. It is small and shy, but it appears deliberate; the strokes are distinct and complex, placed right in the middle of a flower shaped like a blazing sun.

Given the small size of the strokes, different people will interpret them differently. However, it is possible to see them as a slightly distorted IHS. There’s an extra stroke under the first character, and the horizontal is placed in such a way to create a 7 instead of a cross. So again, this is one possible interpretation of the strokes, one which assumes IHS was meant, and I realize there are other options.

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When I first saw this, I didn’t make much of it since the placement of the text on what looks like a blazing sun didn’t ring a bell. But as I looked around, I started noticing IHS in suns all around, especially from the 16th century to modern day.

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As it turns out, this was, and still is, the emblem of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), which they adopted in the 16th century.

But the history of the sun-IHS starts earlier, and we know exactly in which year: 1417. [3] It was then that Italy’s most influential preacher of the time held it aloft in front of crowds of thousands wherever his travels took him, and forced it into people’s minds and onto the walls of their churches and homes.

Even if there is no link between it and the VM, I found its history by itself interesting enough to write a post about.

St Bernardino of Siena and the primacy of the Holy Name

Bernardino of Siena was a popular travelling preacher, and a determined hater of witches, Jews and homosexuals. But he was also a peacemaker in an Italy that suffered under political turmoil, partizan violence and petty wars. His sermons drew thousands of listeners, and soon he had to move his pulpit onto public squares, since the churches had become too small to house his audience. He is regarded as the greatest Italian preacher of his generation, one of the most famous Italians of his time, and his example made the focus of the Franciscans’ activities shift from poverty to preaching.

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Painting by Jacopo Bellini, c. 1450-55, a decade after Bernardino’s death.

There was one thing Bernardino loved above everything else: the name of Jesus Christ. Like, literally the name “Jesus”. For him, it was a holy word of light, with the power to overcome depravity and political conflict. If he could make the people love and venerate the name of Christ, so he thought, this would save their souls and society as a whole.

So in 1417 he came up with a plan: he combined the IHS Christogram (his version was the equivalent YHS) with a blazing sun, and showed this symbol to the crowds at his sermons. Thus, he reached thousands all over Italy. By 1425, the people of Siena demanded Bernardino’s sun be painted on their town hall, and it is still there today.

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St Bernardino preaching in Siena, painted by Sano di Pietro. He is showing his monogram on the tablet, and it can also be seen on the Palazzo Pubblico in the background.

From Illuminating Jesus in the Middle Ages [2]: “We are told that [Bernardino’s] climactic holding aloft of the monogram table at the end of his sermons produced spontaneous weeping and cries of ‘Giesù! Giesù!’ and ‘Misericordia!’ as his listeners fell to their knees. Whilst these outward displays appear, in part, to have been expressions of joy and love for Jesus, the overwhelming impression from the descriptions is that they were outpourings of compunction for sin, brought about by Bernardino’s preaching, which he then channelled into civic peace-making between rival parties through public rituals of reconciliation.”

Bernardino’s dedication to the Name led to considerable disquiet among authorities in Italy, and he was tried for heresy and “word-magic” in 1426 and 1431. His books were examined, and for a short time in 1427, the Pope forbade him to use his monogram tablet. Still, his “use of the monogram to heal party strife within the Italian civic elites and its subsequent prominent display on civic and church buildings rendered it a symbol of the fifteenth-century Italian political establishment as well as of domestic and personal piety. The popularity of Bernardino’s monogram was perhaps not surprising in a society that widely employed religious and secular images to signify political allegiance.”

Guelphs and Ghibelline Merlons

The political struggles I mentioned are best exemplified by the division between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Both factions came to the fore in the 12th century, and the distinction only became obsolete by the mid-16th century. Their conflict is long and complex, but basically the Guelphs supported the Pope, while the Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Empire.

I first learned about Guelphs and Ghibellines a few years ago, because it is a topic of interest for those who study the Voynich Manuscript. One way both factions distinguished themselves was by the shape of the merlons on their castles: the Guelphs used the standard square shape, while the Ghibellines built swallowtail merlons. These Ghibelline merlons are also depicted on the Voynich 9-rosettes foldout; they are arguably the most telling architectural element on this folio, and indeed in the whole manuscript.

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It was in these circumstances that Bernardino of Siena became known as a peacemaker, opposing such political strife. He got along with Popes (who were always quick to acquit him of heresy), and provided counsel to Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, attending his coronation in Rome, 1433. Below is an example from one of his sermons, “Against the Guelphs and Ghibellines and other productions of party spirit”:

Perhaps some are surprised that I speak so severely against these parties, but the answer is supplied by sad experience. The plague comes into a city and many die, but many remain alive, and generally they are the larger part. But let the faction of Guelphs or Ghibellines, or any other, enter a city, and it is the greatest wonder if any escape, without at least in course of time joining, or being thought to join, one side or the other, as I indeed, to my astonishment and surprise, know from certain experience.

An important reason Bernardino was so intent on promoting his YHS-sunburst was that he explicitly intended this symbol to replace faction “badges”. As such, the Bernardine monogram became a political symbol itself. If you want to take people’s minds off political quibbling (and sins like sodomy) you need to give them something to direct their attention towards instead.

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Bernardino lived in a world of visual symbols. And the symbol he created had “celebrity cachet”, as Emily Michelson put it. While in Perugia, he had it inscribed at least twice on each of the thirty most visited churches. He first used his YHS-sun in 1417, while preaching in Ferrara, a city that was at that time ruled by the House of Este and boasts a beautiful Palazzo Municipale with Ghibelline merlons.

However, the talisman-like monogram was not without its controversy, and ultimately it became a taboo subject (even though, paradoxically, it was known and visible all around). This becomes clear when he was canonized soon after his death. “Of thirty-three articles confirming the case for Bernardino’s canonization, none mentions the monogram or even Bernardino’s devotion to the name of Jesus.” [3]

In the VM?

I’ve been writing about Bernardino and his monogram for a long time, without really linking back to the VM flower. This is because I first wanted to get to the bottom of the history and significance of the symbol – it is rare that the case is so clear-cut. Of course, the connection to the VM is much less certain.

 

Bernardino and his monogram are depicted often and early in painting, but unfortunately I have not yet been able to locate examples of the symbol in manuscripts before the 1440’s. The earliest was found by J.K. Petersen, dated to 1446 (two years after Bernardino’s death):

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source

Other examples occur later in the 15th century:

http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/page/3/77333
http://ica.themorgan.org/manuscript/77105
http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=36098

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The most obvious difference is that in the real monograms, text proudly fills the centre of the sun. Not so in the VM, where whatever-is-written is even a tad smaller than regular text. Going into full theorist mode, one could suppose that for some reason any Christian references in the VM had to be hidden. In that case, it would obviously be a bad idea to place a giant IHS in the middle of a “sun-flower”.

While the text remains unclear, we did learn that a sun with a short inscription was a common sight in the early 15th century land of Ghibelline merlons. It is not so unlikely, then, that the VM shape was inspired by Bernardino’s sun-monogram, even if it may not be a direct representation of it.

 


NOTES

[1] Meussig, Carolyn. “Bernardine of sienna and Obervant Preaching as a Vehicle for religious Transformation”, A Companion to Observant Reform in the Late Middle Ages and Beyond, (James Mixson and Bert Roest, eds.) Brill, 2015

[2] Illuminating Jesus in the Middle Ages (BRILL) p.145-152

[3] Emily Michelson, “Bernardino of Siena Visualizes the Name of God,” in: Speculum Sermonis: Interdisciplinary Reflections on the Medieval Sermon, ed. Georgiana Donavin, Cary J. Nederman, and Richard Utz (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 157-79.