Artful Perspective: The X in Christmas

Have you ever wondered why people so freely write “Merry Xmas”-? It’s not necessarily disrespectful- the use of the X in reference to Christ’s name is evidenced in Early Christian art. Case in point- the object below, 1965.551; Monogram of Christ from the 500s AD in Syria.

Monogram of Christ (Chrismon). Date: 500s.Byzantium, Syria, early Byzantine period, 6th century. Gift of Lillian M. Kern. 1965.551.

Capital with Acanthus and Crosses. Date: 400s. Byzantium, Northern Syria, Byzantine period, 5th century. John L. Severance Fund. 1969.110

The “X” was the first letter in Christ’s name- the Greek letter Chi. Just like it’s spelled, it was pronounced with a “Ch” sound. Combined with the second letter, the Greek letter Rho, the interplay of letters became the Christogram, a symbol for Christ himself. In this combination, the X is intersected through the middle by the Rho, whose little rounded part appears at the top. Short-armed Greek crosses are plentiful in the early period, their shape maintaining connection to the first letter of Christ’s name. You can find many examples in the galleries, such as on this capital from Syria from the 400s AD in gallery 106.

Early Christian art abounds in covert references to the new religion, which, until it was officially sanctioned in the 300s AD, had to be practiced in secret, for fear of severe punishment. (Witness the many martyrdoms leading up to the 4th century AD.) Many of these symbols continue in Christian art today- such as the fish; whose Greek letters “ICHTHUS” were code for the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. A beautiful fish-shaped gem is on view in Gallery 104- which is made of rock crystal, a material thought to have significant properties.

-- Alicia Hudson Garr


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