Symbolism: What is the significance of "IHS"?
As I mentioned a while ago, I’ve started teaching myself New Testament Greek. This endeavor has already started bearing some rather fruity tidbits. In the first few lessons I learnt the Greek alphabet and, even with this basic information, certain things which had previously mystified me, started to make sense. Today I would like to share with you one of my first “aaahhhh…” moments 🙂
For those Catholics reading this, it’s time for a pop quiz! Often in churches, you will see the letters “IHS” (it’s even used on the Reformation Wall in Geneva0. You see these letters on books, altars, baptismal fonts, communion hosts etc, but what does it mean?
If you don’t know what this means, then don’t worry, you’re in very good company! Only a few people I’ve spoken to about this have known the answer. Catholic churches are so densely packed with symbols that it’s all too easy to become numb to them. Familiarity can lead us to stop asking questions, yet our places of worship have so much to teach us about our own faith!
Okay smarty-pants, what does it mean?
The “IHS” is a “Christogram”. This is a type of monogram which is an abbreviation of Jesus’ name.
“Wait a minute!” I hear you say! “‘IHS’ looks nothing like the word ‘Jesus’!”. And, of course, you’re quite right…until you translate “Jesus” into Greek…
Greek has its own alphabet and in it “Jesus” is spelled “ιησυς” and when capitalized it becomes “ΙΗΣΟΥΣ”. If we take just the first three letters of this word then we have “ΙΗΣ”. These are the Greek letters “iota”, “eta” and “sigma”. When these letters are converted (“transliterated”) into our alphabet it becomes “IHS” (sometimes “IHC”, “JHS” or “JHC”).
There are some other suggestions as to what “IHS” stands for, although these are rather unlikely. Two Latin phrases have been suggested: “Iesus Hominum Salvator” (“Jesus, Saviour of men”) and “In Hoc Signo” (“In this sign…[you shall conquer]”). I even came across two English phrases – “I Have Suffered” and the rather nice “In His Service”. Unfortunately, these are all “backronyms” – phrases constructed to fit an already existing acronym.
So, there you have it. “IHS” is a shorthand for “Jesus”. It was used in the Early Church, popularized by St. Bernardino of Sienna in the 15th Century, adopted as the seal of the Jesuits in the 16th Century and can now be found in Christian art and architecture throughout the world.