Byzantine Tetragrams

Hagios Athanasios, Makrinitsa, GR © Andreas Rhoby

Apart from proper inscriptions, today more than ever one is confronted with abbreviations and acronyms. Their meaning is understood even if not everyone is capable of resolving them correctly (e.g. CIA, FBI, WHO). Acronyms were also used in the Middle Ages, especially in the East. In the Byzantine Empire a specific role is played by so-called “tetragrams.” A “tetragram” consists of four letters (sometimes also of four pairs of letters) which usually accompany depictions of crosses, regardless of the surface they are attached to (stone, painting, wood, textile, etc.).

The importance of the cross and its cult in Byzantium is widely known: the meaning of the cross as sign of redemption and as symbol of reconciliation between God and mankind is already discussed in the New Testament; with its apotropaic and protective function the cross is therefore regarded as the most pervasive subject in Byzantine art.

The most common four pairs of letters is the famous IC XC NI KA (= Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς νικᾷ “Jesus Christus conquers”) normally inscribed in the space of the four corners of the cross. Next in popularity is ΦΧΦΠ. Its resolved form Φῶς Χριστοῦ φαίνει πᾶσιν is used in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

However, many more additional tetragrams exist, e.g. EEEE, ΘΘΘΘ, ΜΓΧΒ, ϚϚΔΠ, CΔΦT, TTTT, XXXX.

The aim of the project is to present to complete online catalogue of all existing tetragrams (ca. 130 types collected so far) and their attestations (several hundred). In addition, the phenomenon of tetragrams, their presentation and their interaction with the reader / beholder, also with regard to the interaction between word and image, will be discussed in studies similar to Secret Messages? Byzantine Greek Tetragrams and Their Display.

Cooperation Partner

Emmanuel Moutafov (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Art Studies)