It’s a two for one offer on symbols this month folks as I feature two ancient symbols which are often combined together. They both predate Christianity and were then adopted by the newly emerging faith. This was a time when Christians only communicated with fellow believers via a secret language of symbols and codes known only to each other. Discovery would have meant death and so the codes were designed to keep outsiders away.
These symbols are the Alpha and Omega and the Chi-Rho. They’re not all that common in cemeteries but I found these two examples in Brompton Cemetery, London. They stood out because of their simplicity and classicism.
The Alpha and Omega
This fine example which also features the Chi-Rho is on the substantial Platt memorial in Brompton Cemetery. I’ll write about the Chi-Rho later. Thomas Platt was the first to be buried here in 1899 followed by his wife, Annie, who outlived him and died in 1925. Two of their daughters are also buried and commemorated here – one died in 1935 and the other, also called Annie, in 1936. I haven’t been able to find out much about him or the family but this is a substantial memorial with space for more incumbents. It’s made of pink granite in the classical style with a large cross on top and acroteria on each of the corners on the pedestal under the Alpha and Omega, Chi-Rho and cross.
The Alpha and Omega are very similar in a way to an ouroboros as they both express eternity. They are formed from the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and represent God. He is the first – the alpha – as there is no God before him and the last – the Omega – as there is no God after him. The symbols also appear in several Bible verses including Revelation verses 1.8:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” King James version
They also appear in Revelation verses 21.6 and verses 22.13 as well as Isiah verses 44.6.
Both the Jewish and Islamic faiths use the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe the name of their God.
The Alpha and Omega have been represented by an eagle and an owl. There has also been a suggestion that the Omega is an ancient representation of the Goddess Ishtar’s headdress and that the Alpha was derived from the ox horn headdress worn by male deities and kings but I would like to see more evidence of this. However it’s an interesting theory on how these symbols might have come into being.
Interestingly, the two motifs are known as a merism. This is a figure of speech that articulates the beginning of something and the ending of something with the implication that it also refers to all things in between. For example, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer etc.
However, Douglas Fielder in ‘Stories in Stone’ has suggested the Alpha and Omega may be the representation of the beginning and end of a life and that would certainly fit in with their use within cemeteries. J C Cooper’s definition is that they denote the beginning and end of all things.
This is a striking example from Brompton Cemetery London and is on the grave of Matthew Boyd Bredon. He was an Irishman who served in the 3rd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers and rose through the ranks. He became a Lieutenant in 1875 and a Captain in 1878 and became a Major. The epitaph states that he died in Swatow, or Shantou is it was originally known, in China in 1900. This was the time of the Boxer Rebellion in which treaty ports were imposed on China by the British and other foreign powers who wanted to open up trade. However, these ports weren’t strictly ports and instead were separate communities in which foreigners lived according to their own customs, traditions and rules of law. Bredon was also the Deputy Commissioner of Customs in China at the time of his death. In 1900 a brass eagle was presented to his local church, St Saviours in Co Armagh, Northern Ireland in his memory.
The Chi-Rho was created by using the first two capital letters from the Greek word for Christ:
These are Chi and Rho and this is the earliest form of christogram. The definition of a christogram is, according to Wikipedia,
‘ a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ and is a traditionally used as a religious symbol within the Christian church.’
The combination of the letters have led to claims that the Chi Rho symbolises the status of Jesus as the risen Christ as the vertical stroke of the Rho intersects the centre of the Chi. Thus it could be seen as a symbol of resurrection when used in cemeteries.
However, it wasn’t originally a religious symbol and was, instead, used to mark an especially valuable or relevant passage in a page. When used like this it was known as a Chresten which meant ‘good.’ It also appeared on ancient Egyptian coins.
The Roman Emperor, Constantine, (306-337) used the Chi Rho as part of a military standard known as a Labarum. He had a dream in which he felt that military success would follow if he put a heavenly and divine symbol on his soldiers shields to protect them
From 350 onwards The Chi Rho began to appear on Christian sarcophagi and frescoes and has been found in the celebrated Roman catacombs. It came to Britain via the Roman invasion and can be seen on a mosaic at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent, UK.
Nowadays it has been adopted as a popular tattoo symbol.
I did try and discover the significance of these two symbols to these two men who both died relatively young but a search through coats of arms and regimental cap badges in the case of Bredon and other sites with Platt yielded no new information. But they have left us with impressive examples of these early and powerful symbols.
©Text and photographs Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs M Smith, 2008
An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978