IHS Monogram/Insiginia on 18th and 19th Century Gravestones

As you know I am a big fan of the current movement to record historic graveyards and the great work being done by  Historic Graves and local communities around Ireland.  I  am amazed by the  many examples of 18th and 19th century  folk art preserved around the country in historic gravestones.


Gravestone from Tubbrid Co Tipperary

The majority of 18th and 19th century gravestones that I have encountered  bear the  monogram IHS at the top of the stone.  I have often wondered about its origins and meaning.  What follows is just some observation on this motif, I intend to delve deeper when time permits.

1-west cork 018

Gravestone with IHS motif from St Olan’s church Aghabullogue Co Cork

What does IHS Stand for ?

The three letters IHS are what is known as a  christogram. This is a  combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of  Jesus Christ.

So IHS stands for the name Jesus.   You might be thinking  how can this be as there is no I or H in  the word.  The answer to the question is that in Greek  the word Jesus is written as ιησους’ it is transliterated as ‘ihsous’ . In Latin the name is written Iesus  and in English Jesus. The insignia ‘IHS’ comes from the Latinized version of the Greekιησους’. IHS, it is the first three letters of the Greek spelling of the Holy Name Jesus. According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia

In the Middle Ages the Name of Jesus was written: IHESUS; the monogram contains the first and last letter of the Holy Name. It is first found on a gold coin of the eight century: DN IHS CHS REX REGNANTIUM (The Lord Jesus Chirst, King of Kings).

The monogram became popular  after the 12th century when St Bernard  encouraged devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus and  it was widely used in Western iconography. St Bernadino of Sienna (1380-1444), a popular Franciscan preacher,  is said to have placed the monogram on a tablet and held them both  before a crowd of people and  rays  were said to radiate from the sign.   From that time on the IHS  was often depicted in a sunburst.  A number of 18th/19th century gravestones bear this design see photo below.


Rubbing of gravestone from Tubbrid Co Tipperary, note the  IHS is framed in a sunburst

Towards the end of the Medieval period IHS became a symbol  like the Chi-Rho ( Chi-Rho is the Greek letter Χ combined with the letter Ρ represents the first two letters of Christ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ) and it is the most common monogram of Christ).


IHS within Sunburst at St. Finbarr’s Church in Magheross, Carrickmacross (http://www.carrickmacrossworkhouse.com/index.php/headstones-crests-symbols)

Maere (1910) notes that sometimes

the H appears a cross and underneath three nails, while the whole figure is surrounded by rays.  IHS became the accepted iconographical characteristic of St. Vincent Ferrer (d. 1419) and of St. Bernardine of Siena (d. 1444). The latter holy missionary, at the end of his sermons, was wont to exhibit this monogram devoutly to his audience, for which some blamed him; he was even called before Martin V.  St. Ignatius of Loyola adopted the monogram in his seal as general of the Society of Jesus (1541), and thus it became the emblem of his institute (Jesuits).  IHS was sometimes wrongly understood as “Jesus Hominum (or Hierosolymae) Salvator”, i.e. Jesus, the Saviour of men (or of Jerusalem=Hierosolyma).

In Medieval England the name of Christ was considered powerful protection against demonic agents such as ghosts. ‘It was used apotropaically in England from the end of the 12th century, engraved on material culture in the abbreviated trigram IHS (from the Greek IHCOYC, Jesus)‘(Gilchrist 2008, 126). With this in mind its very interesting that one of four bells made for the west tower of  Ely Catherdral  in 1345-6  by John of Gloucester was named IHS.  Bells were meant to ward off evil and in Germany and parts of Scandinavia  pilgrim badges were incorporated into medieval bell moulds. There are also  examples of IHS  appearing on medieval grave slabs and holy water fonts  in England.

I dont as yet  know how old the use of IHS is in Ireland  but it  most likely  dates to medieval times.


IHS stone at the entrance to the  Augustinian Priory on  O’Connell St Limerick City.

A 17th century example is found at  Augustinian Priory on O’Connell Street Limerick City in Limerick.   The Limerick city Augustinians were originally based in the town of Adare Co Limerick but following the reformation moved into the city and eventually ended up at their current location.

The stone is located on the right as you enter the church from O’Connell St.  As you can see from the photo the insignia is cut in relief on to a rectangular dressed stone. The stone is  not original to the church, according to the Augustinians of Limerick Website.

 The stone is the original lintel stone dated 1633 from the order’s first chapel in Limerick at Fish Lane. The O’Doherty family saved this stone in 1933 when the buildings in Fish Lane were knocked for new houses. The stone was kept in their stonecutting yard until  brought to the attention of the Prior, Fr Vincent Lyons in 1961. Fr Lyons bought the stone and in October 1962, it was inserted into the wall of the church.


IHS stone at the Augustinian Priory Limerick City

The H has a cross extending from it and a heart underneath  which I assume  must represent the sacred heart.

IHS was appearing on  funerary monuments by the early 17th century. One of the earliest example I have come across  from my very limited search was record by Chris Corlett (2012).  He   notes that  IHS  is incorporated into the base of a cross on a stone commemorates a James Grace who lived in nearby Rathvilly (Co. Carlow) and who died in 1605 at Baltinglass Abbey Co Wicklow.

Robert Chapel (2012) records two early 17th century  grave slabs with IHS near Craughwell   in Co Galway, one  at Killogillen ( whoes inscription bears the date 1614)  and the other  at Killora (whoes incription  bears the date dated to 161(?) 9). This design becomes a very common feature of  18th and 19th century headstones. There are likely many other earlier examples but time has not allowed for a more intensive search.

A variant of this motif is the cross coming from the H with  three nails  arranged  underneath. This motif was used in late medieval period and was popularized in the fifteenth century by Franciscans and was eventually adopted by the Jesuits. It also  occurs  on the 18th and 19th century gravestones (see below).

 Father Ryan Erlenbush (2012) in his blog What does IHS stand For? The meaning of the Holy Name of Jesus

After three nails were added under the insignia (together with a cross above), some noticed that the inscription now contained a “V” below the IHS – so that we see IHSV.  In this form it was adopted by St. Ignatius as the symbol of the Jesuits. IHSV was interpreted to mean In Hoc Signo Vinces, “In this sign, you shall conquer”. It was taken as a reference to the victory which Constantine won against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312. Before the battle, the future Emperor saw a sign in the sky (probably the Greek chi-rho X-P, the symbol of “Christ”) and heard the words εν τουτω νικα, which is Greek for “In this [sign], you shall conquer”. The phrase was translated into Latin and it was noticed that the first letters of each word added up to IHSV – thus was born the legend that IHS stood for Constantine’s vision and the Christianization of Rome. Most certainly, in the Holy Name of Jesus we shall conquer every enemy – and the last enemy to be destroyed is death itself).


Gravestone with IHS and three nails at Newcastle graveyard Co Tipperary.

So it seems that the IHS motif has a long tradition in Ireland and the  stonemasons who made these stones  were drawing from a common  Christian tradition and iconography which can be traced back to the medieval period. This is a really interesting  topic and I hope to come back to it again.


Anon. Holy Name of Jesus,   at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07421a.htm

Chappel, R. 2012.’Workingman’s Dead: Notes on some 17th to 19th century memorials, from the graveyards of Killora and Killogilleen, Craughwell, Co Galway, Ireland. Part II. http://rmchapple.blogspot.ie/2012/04/workingmans-dead-notes-on-some-17th-to.html

Corlett, C. 2012, ‘ The Grace Memorial Stone at Baltinglass Abbey’, http://www.christiaancorlett.com/#/blog/4564514201/The-Grace-memorial-stone-at-Baltinglass-Abbey/3705554

Erlenbush, R. 2012. ‘What does IHS stand For? The meaning of the Holy Name of Jesus’ http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.ie/2012/01/what-does-ihs-stand-for-meaning-of-holy.html

Gilchrist, R. 2008. ‘Magic for the dead? The archaeology if magic in late medieval burials’ Medieval Archaeology, Vol 52, 119-159.

Maere, R. (1910). IHS. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved December 7, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07649a.htm




8 comments on “IHS Monogram/Insiginia on 18th and 19th Century Gravestones

  1. socialbridge says:

    Amazing, since I was a child, I have always accepted that IHS stood for ‘I have suffered’ which seemed to be the common view. Thanks for this enlightenment!

  2. Roy Murray says:

    I always thought it stood for “I Have Suffered”.

  3. What an absolutely brilliant piece of writing and research, so many details and examples. I’m a subscriber but am very happy to have found your blog again. Thank you very much.

  4. […] You may have noticed the letters IHS on Bridget Sweeney’s grave. Ubiquitous on old gravestones, on its own, accompanied by a simple cross, or as part of a more elaborate decoration, IHS stood for the name of Jesus. For a full explanation, see this post from the always excellent Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. […]

  5. […] is a marker that is difficult to read. With respect to the IHS at the top, here is a very interesting explanation focused on its usage in 18th and 19th century Ireland, appropriate context for the Graveyard at the Basilica of St. Peter. Short story is that IHS […]

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