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Friday 10 April 2020

The Inscription on the Cross by Fr Jerome Bertram

Preserved in the relic chamber behind the Basilica of Santa Croce in Rome is a fragment of what purports to be the original inscription set up by Pontius Pilate on the Cross of Jesus. It has recently received some attention, but there are many curious features of this inscription that deserve further consideration. (Notably in Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew d’Ancona, The Quest for the True Cross, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2000.)

The artifact is a thin panel of wood, apparently walnut, weighing 687 grammes, and measuring 253 by 140 mm, with an average thickness of 26 mm. It has been painted white, and the letters are incised into the wood and have been darkened, although its present appearance is of bare wood with the letters scratched on it. There is a large amount of worm damage, completely removing the surface in many areas. The panel is set in a frame, secured by red ribbons which obscure the extreme ends of the panel. Nevertheless by looking closely at the original, and comparing it with recent photographs, it is possible to make out quite a lot of the inscription, which is in three lines:

  1. The upper part of the front of the panel has been eroded away, removing virtually all of the top line of the inscription, leaving only five strokes, all sloping to the left.
  2. The second line is reasonably clear, and reads from right to left in majuscule Greek characters C NAZAPHNOYC (the Z is reversed, the underlined letters are conjoined into a single character). Earlier transcriptions agree in seeing another conjoined OY character, or at least its second half, on the extreme right, and a B on the extreme left, though both are now obscured. The apparent horizontal stroke above the C on the right may be worm damage.
  3. The third line, likewise reading from right to left, is in Latin capitals, NAZARENVS R. Again, earlier transcripts saw an S on the extreme right, and E on the extreme left.

The panel is displayed in a silver gilt glass-fronted reliquary, apparently eighteenth-century, surmounted with a tabula ansata with a rationalisation of the inscription. (Described and illustrated in Thiede and d’Ancona, pp. 93-4 and colour plate 3. Unfortunately the printer has printed the illustration inside out, resulting in a loss of focus. A better colour photograph is available from the Basilica.)

Most visitors to Rome over the centuries have probably dismissed the inscription as a clumsy forgery, despite the intriguing questions raised by the fact that the lettering is reversed, and by its incomplete nature. The reliquary attempts to rationalise it as follows:

  1. YS NWSRY MLK, Yesh notsriy melek,
  2. I(ησου)C NAZAPHNOYC B(ασιλευς),
  3. I(esus) NAZARENVS RE(x),

in every case giving a possible reading of ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King.’ This takes the second half of the OY conjunction at the right-hand edge as a rather irregular I, and interprets IC as the standard abbreviation for IHCOYC common in Byzantine and later Greek. The inscription is thus just possibly complete, but shorter than any of the versions in the Gospels, abbreviating both the name Jesus, and the designation King, with no mention of the Jews but great prominence to the Nazarene.

A more adequate reconstruction is displayed near the relic, attributed to Sisto Benigni, former President General of the Cistercian Order, in 1827. He concludes that the greater part of the inscription is missing, and that a complete reading would be as follows:

  1. YSW’ NSRY MLK HYHWDYM, vocalized as Yeshua’ notsri melek ha-Yehudim.

All three would then read, consistently, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. It is unclear why Dom Sisto chooses to write ΒΑϹΙΛΕΥϹ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΩΝ rather than the more normal ΒΑϹΙΛΕΥϹ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΩΝ, but indeed the text is sufficiently close to St John’s Gospel (21:19) for us to make our own reconstruction as follows:

  1. YHSW’ HNWSRI WMLK HYHWDYM: Yehoshwa’ ha-Nowtsri wu-ha-melek ha-Yehuwdiym, ‘Jesus, the Nazarene, and the king of the Jews’. The acronym may be significant.
    (The crucial reconstruction of the surviving strokes as ha-nowtsriy is given in Thiede and d’Ancona, pp 104-5.)
  2. ΙΗϹΟΥϹ ΝΑΖΑΡΗΝΟΥϹ ΒΑϹΙΛΕΥϹ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΩΝ. This differs from St John only in that his text reads Ο ΒΑϹΙΛΕΥϹ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΩΝ, with two definite articles (as we have reconstructed them in the Hebrew) and an alternative form of the adjective ‘Nazarene’.)

If we attempt to reconstruct the actual appearance of the whole inscription, on this basis, we find that the left-hand edge of the fragment comes approximately in the middle of a panel 59 cm long, and the missing piece on the right hand edge is only about 5 cm wide. There is no real need to hypothesize that a strip has been cut off the top of the surviving fragment, since the actual piece of wood is quite broad enough for the missing upper parts of the letters, it is only the surface that has been eroded away, although to provide a margin equal in depth to that below the inscription a further two cm of panel would be useful.

That the fragment is capable of reconstruction as part of the complete Johannine text of the Titulus Crucis is beyond doubt: what is much more problematic is whether it can possibly be genuine, and if not who created it and when. Much of this story has been brought together by Thiede and d’Ancona, but there is interesting fifteenth-century evidence which was unknown to them, and some implications from our reconstruction which can be drawn out.

For a start, the article has been in its present location and in its present condition since 1492: of that there can really be no doubt. It was discovered in that year walled up in the basilica, behind a layer of stucco and a brick inscribed TITVLVS CRVCIS, and was immediately recognized and given much publicity. It was venerated by Pope Innocent VIII, and his distinguished successor Alexander VI, and has been displayed and illustrated frequently since. (Thiede & d’Ancona, pp 92-3.) A number of contemporary copies enable us to determine exactly in what condition it was found.

The first of these is an inscription in the Hauptfriedhof (central cemetery) at Worms, probably moved from the Amandusfriedhof. (Described and illustrated in Die Inschriften der Stadt Worms ed. by Rüdiger Fuchs, Deutscher Inschriften Band 29, 1991, p. 232-3 and pl. 34, fig. 92a.) It is the title at the top of a stone carved crucifix, which is securely dated to 1493 by an inscription on its base. The title consists of three lines, all reading from right to left, as follows:

  1. YHSW’ NZ’RYNY Yehoshua’ Naz’ariyniy

Not only is the wording virtually identical to that on the Santa Croce relic, but even the letter forms have been copied. For the Hebrew, the D.I. editor relies on T. Kwasman of Heidelberg and Manfred Maier of Worms for the above reading: however it is possible to take it as YHSW’ NZRY MLK Y, Yehoshuwa’ Nozriy melek Y(ehudim). The Hebrew letters can be fitted onto the surviving strokes on the Roman relic. In the Greek the Z is reversed, the P has a little point on top, the E is of a rounded form with seraphs at the ends of the strokes, and the O and Y are conjoined into a single character. In the Latin the first A has a straight bar, and the second a broken one, and the E is square. It is quite obvious that the stone mason (who signs himself Meister Thomas) had in front of him a careful drawing of the titulus that had so recently been found in Rome. Like the maker of the reliquary in Santa Croce, he interpreted the first two characters in the Greek as the abbreviation for IHCOYC, and saw the Greek abbreviation B and the Latin abbreviation RE at the ends of the respective lines.

Not far away, in the Paulskirche in Osnabrück, is another stone carved crucifix with the trilingual title, not exactly dated but clearly about 1500. (Described and illustrated in Die Inschriften der Stadt Osnabrück ed. by Sabine Wehking, Deutscher Inschriften Band 26, 1988, p. 79 and pl. 20, fig. 29.) This one is less faithful to the original, but is also clearly copied from the relic in Rome. The inscription, spread over five lines, seems to read as:

    1. YSW’ NWSRY I, Yeshuw’ Notsriy ...
    4. jesus nazarenus rex
    5. iudeorum.

In the first line the last character is a single stroke, and could be intended for almost anything. The D.I. editor, relying on Dr Hans-Ulrich Boesche of Göttingen, has read the Hebrew line as YHWSW’ NS MLK Y/HS, Yehowshuw’ Notsri melek Yehus. However he admits the first strokes are difficult to make out, and the published illustration, although not very clear, is susceptible to a more normal reading. The letters could fit onto the surviving strokes on the relic in Rome. In the Greek we find the ΙϹ abbreviation, the Ζ reversed and the Ε rounded as usual; the bar of the first Α is straight, that of the second broken, the ΟΥ conjoined; the last word possibly intended (as the D.I. editor reads it) for ‘rex’; the Δ in the third line is actually a Latin D reversed. It appears that the carver knew little Latin and less Greek, and has assimilated the second two languages: the two types of A have been copied from the Latin line of the original. The Latin text is written in normal late fifteenth-century Gothic minuscules, with no attempt at imitating any original.

A painted altarpiece from the Charterhouse at Cologne, given by Peter Rinck who died in 1501, depicts the Crucifixion with saints, attributed to the Bartholomäusmeister. (See Renate Schumacher-Wolfgarten, ‘Eine römische Passionsreliquie, Präsentation und Indienstnahme. Zum Kreuz-Altar des Bartholomäusmeisters in Köln’, in U. Lange and R. Sörries (ed), Vom Orient bis an den Rhein, Begegnungen mit der Christlichen Archäeologie, Peter Poscharsky zum 65. Geburtstag, J.H. Roll verlag, pp 257-275. I am grateful to Rüdiger Fuchs for this reference.) On the cross hangs an inscription tablet, clearly copied from the same Roman original as the Worms and Osnabrück inscriptions. In this case no attempt was made to include the Hebrew, and the two lines read:


In this case both inscriptions run from left to right. The Greek line has the Ζ reversed, the rounded Ε, and the familiar ΟΥ conjunction, in the Latin line the R is almost a B. The commentator draws attention to the titulus shown on Michelangelo’s crucifixion at Florence of 1493, which shows the three languages as follows:

  1. YSW HNWSRY MLK H-YHWDYM, Yeshuw ha-Notsriy melek ha-Yehuwdiym.

In the Greek the Ο and Υ are conjoined, but in a different manner from usual, with the Υ inserted inside the Ο, and in both instances of ΩΝ the Ν is similarly inside the Ω. The text reads from right to left in both Latin and Greek, but there is no attempt to imitate the letter forms on the Roman relic. Michelangelo has been influenced by the Santa Croce relic to the extent of running his inscriptions from right to left, and using some form of conjunction of the Ο and Υ, but he has made a curious correction by using the alternative adjective form Ναζωραῖος in both Greek and Latin. The Hebrew is written in ordinary square letters, unpointed.

There are doubtless more examples of copies of the Santa Croce relic dating from very shortly after its discovery in 1492, but these four are enough to indicate some conclusions. Michelangelo has obviously asked a Scripture scholar to give him the text in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and gives only lip-service to the Roman relic. The Bartholomäusmeister and Meister Thomas have been content to regard the relic as the entire inscription (as the maker of the reliquary was to do), and do their best to make sense of it accordingly, with an abbreviated simple text of ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King’. They copy not only the wording but also the letter forms of the Greek and Latin closely enough to prove they had both seen an accurate drawing of the relic. The Osnabrück carver was less concerned to copy the original, and more interested in reconstructing a complete text. But what does emerge is that whereas there is little difficulty in reading the Latin and Greek, there was no agreement on the Hebrew line. To recapitulate, Worms appears to read YHSW’ NZRY MLK Y, Osnabruck reads YSW’ NWSRY I, Köln omits it, Michelangelo has YSW HNWSRY MLK ..., and the 18th-century maker of the reliquary has YS NWSRY MLK. All of these, with a little imagination, can be fitted onto the strokes that remain, but the fact that they cannot agree implies that in 1492 the first line of the inscription had already been eroded away to its present condition, whether by rot, worms or the detachment of tiny relic fragments.

The conclusion from all this is that the relic is still in virtually the same condition as in 1492. It is extremely improbable that it was made then, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the lettering, at least of the Latin and Greek, is quite unlike anything of the period. It is equally unlikely at that period that anyone would have thought of writing the Latin and Greek from right to left. The wording is also implausible as it stands, for the version ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King’, is not attested by any of the Gospel writers, and it is bizarre to abbreviate the most important elements, ‘Jesus’ and ‘King’ while spelling out ‘the Nazarene’ in full, especially in a form not used by St John. An intelligent Scripture scholar, wanting to produce a good approximation to the appearance of the original title, would in fact have written something very like the version used by Michelangelo. The text is clear, complete, in accordance with St John, and in lettering that is quite consistent with the late fifteenth century. As we have seen, Michelangelo’s only tribute to the Santa Croce relic is the reversal of the Latin and Greek lettering, and using a conjoined character for the letters ΟΥ. We can safely conclude that the relic we see now is effectively in the same condition as when it was found, and that what was found in 1492 was the same artifact we see now.

The circumstances of its finding are well documented. It was found behind an area of stucco, under a tile inscribed TITVLVS CRVCIS, in a lead box sealed with the arms of Cardinal Gerardo Caccianemici, who became Pope Lucius II in 1144. (Thiede and d’Ancona, p. 91-2; colour plate 6.) The lead box does not survive but the inscribed tile does, and the lettering is quite plausible for the twelfth century. From its size it is obvious that the relic was not significantly larger when it was concealed than when it was uncovered, though of course some damage may have occurred to the wood during those centuries. That it was not created in the twelfth century can be indicated for most of the same reasons against it being fifteenth century, though writing Greek and Latin from right to left was by no means as uncommon at the earlier period. It is all but certain that Cardinal Caccianemici believed he was handling an ancient relic, and that it was much in its present condition, when for whatever reason he decided to wall it up in the Basilica. Its location was never forgotten, for when William Brewyn of Canterbury visited Rome in 1469 he knew it was hidden away ‘behind the blind window which is painted on the outer face above the arch in the middle of the church’, and quotes the text as Hic est IHS Nazarenus rex iudeorum. (A XVth Century Guide-Book to the Principal Churches of Rome, compiled c. 1470 by William Brewyn, transl. and ed. by C. E. Woodruff, London, 1933, p. 53-4.)

Earlier than this it is difficult to go. There are no descriptions of the relic, no illustrations of it, from any earlier period. Even references to it are few and cursory. The two most significant are those discussed at length by Thiede and d’Ancona. St Ambrose, in his panegyric for the emperor Theodosius, mentions the relics recovered by the empress Helena a generation before, among which he enumerates the Titulus Crucis. He quotes the text from St John’s Gospel, Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, but does not say explicitly that the whole text was visible and legible in his time. In speaking about the Empress, whom he calls bona stabularia, the ‘good stable-girl’, he describes her visit to Jerusalem, and her discovery of the Wood of the Cross. She identifies it by the fact that the title is still attached to it, or at least closely associated with it. Habeat Helena quod legat, unde crucem Domini recognoscat. Ambrose continues to explain that it was not the wood, but the King who hung upon it that she worshipped, and he describes at length how she disposed of the Nails, but makes no further mention of the Wood or the Title. (Sancti Ambrosii Mediolanensis Episcopi, Opera Omnia, ed. Benedictines of St Maur, Paris, 1690, II, cols. 1210-1213. Thiede and d’Ancona are wrong in suggesting that Ambrose knew about a fragment of the Title preserved in Rome in his time, p. 91.) All the same, it is perfectly plausible that the Empress brought back to Rome some of her finds, and perfectly plausible that she left them in her own Sessorian Palace, on the site of which stands the Basilica of Santa Croce. But we must stress that there is no explicit evidence for this, or for the existence of a Titulus relic in Rome before the twelfth century.

Where there is explicit evidence is in Jerusalem. The celebrated Egeria, who visited the Holy Places in 383, tells us that on Good Friday she saw and venerated the Titulus Crucis, which together with a fragment of the Wood of the Cross, was brought out of a box by the Bishop of Jerusalem. But she too refrains from giving us a description of it, or quoting the inscription. The implication is that it was attached to the Wood of the Cross, and venerated as a single object, held down by the bishop and closely watched by the deacons, because shortly before someone had succeeded in biting off a fragment. (Egeria’s Travels, trans. and ed. by J. Wilkinson, London 1971, p. 137.)

Neither Ambrose nor Egeria can therefore be cited as evidence that any particular portion of the Titulus Crucis was in any particular place at any time. We can only fall back on conjecture, and suggest what might have happened, which is a very long way from solid evidence.

To return to the physical appearance of the relic. If our reconstruction of the text is approximately correct, rather less than half the entire inscription survives. If it were tacked to the Cross, the tacks would naturally go through the centre of the panel, weakening it so that even if it did not break in half when the Body was taken down, it would most easily break along that line. The first half would then read, in effect, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, K’ and the second half ‘ing of the Jews’. If we accept that Helena found the whole thing, it would be quite reasonable for her to take the first half with her to Rome, and leave the second half, mentioning the Jews, in Jerusalem, where Egeria would be able to venerate it later that century. If for any reason a second division were desirable, the natural break would come between ‘Jesus’ and ‘Nazareth’, more or less where the present right-hand edge of the panel is. The smallest fragment would be only about 10 x 14 cm, with the clear letters IHC across the middle (especially if the fragment were inverted). In this context it is worth mentioning that a curious feature of the preaching of St Bernadine and other friars in the early fifteenth century was that they carried around small wooden boards with IHC or YHC painted on them. It is just possible that St Bernadine had seen the missing fragment somewhere and taken his inspiration from it. But it must be stressed again that all this is the merest conjecture.

To go back even before St Helena, it is remarkable that the four Evangelists give different versions of the inscription, but it has always been St John’s version that has been used in art, in liturgy and in popular imagination.

  1. St Matthew: Οὗτός ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων. (27:37).
  2. St Mark: Ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων. (15:26).
  3. St Luke: Ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων οὗτός. (23:38).
  4. St John: Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος, ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων. (19:19).

Mark and Luke both give versions that look as if they knew only the second half of the inscription. Matthew adds the name, but omits the adjective Nazarene. St John’s version is the fullest, and it is only St John who claims that he was there in person. It is not inconceivable that the inscription did indeed break in half when the Body was taken off the Cross, and that the synoptics knew only of half of it, whereas John remembered the whole. If he writes from memory, the trivial difference between the two possible adjectival forms of ‘Nazarene’ is unimportant: he remembered the gist of the inscription, not the precise Greek forms. On this rendering, Helena might have carried away all she ever found of the Titulus Crucis, leaving the Jerusalem church to venerate the other half which they had wisely refrained from showing her.

Could the actual Title have survived? According to Thiede and d’Ancona, palæographic comparisons make the letter forms not impossible for the first century in Palestine. (Thiede & d’Ancona, pp. 96-100.) We can only imagine the scene when the Body was taken off the Cross; would the Nails, the Crown of Thorns and the Title have been chucked into the nearest ditch with horror, as the instruments of cruelty, or would they have been treasured and preserved as precious souvenirs? It is true that by Old Testament law these objects, so closely associated with a violent death, would have been unclean, but the disciples were already familiar with the idea that the touch of Jesus makes clean what was formerly unclean, and in any case they themselves would have become ritually unclean by their work of ministering to the dead Body. If they did keep them, sharing them out perhaps, so that not all of them later knew exactly where they all were, they could have been handed down through the generations in Jerusalem, until they so foolishly showed at least some of them to the rapacious Helena. The Wood of the Cross, of course, is more problematic: far too large to carry away, the beams might have been buried or hidden. It was certainly normal practice among the Romans to reuse them, but it may be true that in deference to Jewish susceptibilities the Roman authorities might have agreed to dispose of them before the Sabbath. Hiding them in an old grave or cistern would be plausible; their rediscovery in Helena’s visit not impossible, and the successful identification of the central Cross by the fact that the tack holes in the Title fitted holes in the timber not beyond the bounds of possibility. But we have long moved beyond the realms of probability into an area where we can say no more than that it could have happened like this. It is perhaps more probable that the precious souvenirs of the Crucifixion were kept, rather than just thrown away, and it is true that the curious wording and lettering fits more comfortably into a first-century context than any subsequent age, but certainty on such matters will not be granted us.

Above: Fr Jerome’s own reconstruction of the text of the Titulus.