Gammadiae: The Mysterious Lettered Symbols Depicted on Tunics in Earlier Christians Mosaics

If you look at antique Christian mosaics enough, you are bound to notice some trends. In many instances the saints are shown wearing white robes, which of course comes with reference to the Book of Revelation which speaks to the saints as being "they [who] shall walk with me in white, because they are worthy. He that shall overcome shall thus be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life and I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels." (Rev 3:4-5). Further:
I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands: And they cried with a loud voice, saying: Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and to the Lamb. (Rev. 7: 9-10)

Sometimes the men (especially the apostles) are clad as Senators of Rome, or in the instance of Christ, in the robes of the Emperor. They are frequently depicted wearing sandals (or in the case of prelates, frequently they are shown in their liturgical sandalia) and the tunics themselves frequently take antique form of course, with two black or red/tyrian purple "clavi" (vertical stripes) which were originally signs of distinction in the antique Graeco-Roman world, but which became much wider spread in their general decorative use by the time of the first century A.D. (One will, of course, still recognize these clavi as the orphreys found on the dalmatic and tunicle). 

However, in addition to all of these features there is another curious one one sometimes comes across which take the forms of letters found on the cloaks worn over the tunics:

Basilica of Sant'Apollinare, Ravenna

San Lorenzo fuori le mura, Rome - detail of a mosaic showing St. Clement and St. Paul

Detail of the apsidal mosaic of the Basilica of Ss. Cosmas and Damian in Rome.  One will note the symbols on the robe of St. Paul and Christ.

Figure of Christ in S. Pudenziana, Rome

Sant'Apollinare, Ravenna -- Note the angels cloaks

So what are these symbols? It's a good question with no real solid answer to be perfectly frank as I am afraid as their meaning is somewhat lost to the mists of antiquity. As such we are left to speculate.

Many refer to them as "gammadiae." The letters themselves are from the Greek alphabet and they are clearly intended as somehow symbolic in nature -- but symbolic of what? Some have surmised that the letters refer to a corresponding number imbued with some theological meaning (for example, how we might relate the number three to a Trinitarian reference) -- and of course numerical symbolism is indeed common within the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Others dispute this. Some would even dispute the name "gammadia" in reference to these symbols, pointing to that fact that when gammadiae are mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis, they specifically came with reference to the right angled, L-shaped like symbol (which, in Greek is the "Gamma") that was often found put upon altar coverings and curtains, as for example those seen here hanging from the screen of the "Little Metropolis" church in Athens:

One can also see these depicted on altar coverings in mosaics found in Sant'Apollinare and San Vitale in Ravenna:

Sant'Apollinare - The Sacrifice of Abel and Melchisedec

Sant'Apollinare - The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes

San Vitale - The sacrifices of Abel and Melchisedec

If that doesn't confuse matters enough, Fr. Daniel Rock also speaks to this matter of gammadiae in his work, Textile Fabrics offering these thoughts:

Gammadion, or Gammadiæ, a word applied as often to the pattern upon silks as the figures wrought upon gold and silver for use in churches, we so repeatedly come upon in the “Liber Pontificalis.” 

In the Greek alphabet the capital letter of gamma takes the shape of an exact right angle thus, Γ. Being so, many writers have beheld in it an emblem of our Lord as our corner-stone. Following this idea artists at a very early period struck out a way of forming the cross after several shapes by various combinations with it of this letter Γ. Four of these gammas put so


fall into the shape of the so-called Greek cross; and in this form it was woven upon the textiles denominated “stauracinæ;” [Pg li]or patterned with a cross. Being one of the four same-shaped elements of the cross’s figure, the part was significant of the whole. Being, too, the emblem of our corner-stone—our Lord, the gamma, or Γ, was shown at one edge of the tunic on most of the apostles in ancient mosaics; wherein sometimes we find, in place of the gamma, our present capital Η for the aspirate, with which for their symbolic purpose the early Christians chose to utter, if not, write the sacred name. This Η is, however, only another combination of the four gammas in the cross. Whatsoever, therefore, whether of silver or of silk, was found to be marked in these or other ways of putting the gammas together, or with only a single one, such articles were called “gammadion,” or “gammadiæ;” but as often the so-formed cross was designated as “gammaed,” or “gammadia.” St. Leo gave to the Church of S. Susanna, at Rome, an altar-frontal, upon which there were four of such crosses made of purple silk speckled with gold spots...

 He continues:

Given at the end of Du Cange’s “Glossary” is an engraving of a work of Greek art, plate IX. Here St. John Chrysostom stands between St. Nicholas and St. Basil. All three are arrayed in their liturgical garments, which being figured with crosses, are of the textile called [Pg lii]of old “stauracin;” but a marked difference in the way in which the crosses are put is discernible. As a metropolitan St. John wears the saccos upon which the crosses are arranged thus

St. Nicholas, and St. Basil have chasubles which, though worked all over with crosses, made, as on St. John’s saccos, with gammas, are surrounded with other gammas joined so as to edge in the crosses, thus:

As four gammas only are necessary to form all the crosses upon St. John’s vestment, therein we behold the textile called by Anastasius, “Stauracin de quadruplo,” or the stuff figured with a cross of four (gammas); while as eight of these Greek letters are required for the pattern on the chasubles, we have in them an example of the other “stauracin de octaplo,” or “octapulo,” a fabric with a pattern composed of eight gammas. But of all the shapes fashioned out of the repetition of the one same element, the Greek letter Γ, by far the most ancient, universal, and mystic, is that curious one particularized by many as the Gammadion, or Filfot, a name by which, at one time in England, it was generally known. 
At the end of the day we're left with the mystery as to what these symbols might or might not represent.  While it is a bit frustrating to be left to speculate, who doesn't like a good mystery?

Do you like Liturgical Arts Journal's original content? You can help support LAJ in its mission and vision to promote beauty in Catholic worship either by: 

You choose the amount! Your support makes all the difference.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.