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.
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.
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 Greek ‘ιησους’. 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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
(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
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!
No problem I have been curious about this for ages. I will hopefully find out some more in the coming months. Best Wishes, L
Best of luck. Will be keeping a watch out.
I always thought it stood for “I Have Suffered”.
I did too , I will be looking more into this in the coming months.
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.
[…] 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. […]
[…] 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 […]