Some years ago while visiting my parent’s parish in Niagara Falls, the Vincentian priest, during his homily, pointed to the giant crucifix over the tabernacle and said, “…and that is why it reads ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ above the dead body of Our Lord.”

Only problem was, this particular crucifix did not have the “I.N.R.I.” above the corpus.

That curious omission has stayed with me since. Over the years, I have discovered more and more parishes that have a prominently displayed crucifix (over the tabernacle, usually, but sometimes to one side) that lacks the “I.N.R.I.” signage over Jesus’ tilted head.

Why?

 Unquestionably all of the gospels mention the inscription (titulus) which amounted to Jesus’ claim and “crime”—and perhaps the best, most-recent book-length treatment of this can be found in Giorgio Agamben’s Pilate And Jesus. Professor Agamben is worth quoting at length here regarding the inscription:

“The question of kingship returns forcefully in the inscription (titulus) that Pilate has put on the Cross: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ (John 19:19). In mentioning the reason in why he was condemned (Matthew 27:37), it seems at the same time to affirm his kingship. The titulus in capital executions had to report the crime that was punished, but Bonaventure, in his commentary, instead places it alongside the insignia that listed the victories of the triumphant imperator, and for this reason calls it a titulus triumphans, because ‘it is in praise of Christ and to the shame of the Jews, because, even though he had been condemned as a robber, he was indeed no robber, but a king’ (XIX, 31). Even more arbitrarily, Cyril of Alexandria identifies the titulus with chirograph of which Paul speaks (Colossians 2: 14-15), ‘which the Lord nailed to the cross triumphing and submitting the worldly powers to himself’ (XII, 19, 19). The ambiguity of the insignia does not escape the Sanhedrin, so they tell Pilate to change it: ‘Do not write “The King of the Jews”, but that “This Man Said ‘I am the King of the Jews”’ (John 19:21) Here Pilate pronounces his second historical witticism [after his memorable retort: ‘What is truth?’] which seems to give the lie to the equally celebrated one on truth and, along with it, his previous evasions and any supposed skepticism, ‘What I have written, I have written’ (John 19:22).”  (cf. Jesus and Pilate, pp. 25)

In each Gospel the wording of the titulus is a little bit different:

  • Matthew 27:37: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”
  • Mark 15: 26: “The King of the Jews”
  • Luke 23: 38: “This is the King of the Jews”
  • John 19:20 “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”

It is, of course, from this last example (St. John’s) that we get the acronym “INRI = Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum.” And “only John mentions its polyglot character (verse 20: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek)” per the notes to the Catholic Study Bible/New American Bible. St. John is also the only one who mentions the Sanhedrin’s resistance to its usage and, per Prof. Agamben, his imperious recalcitrance when asked to change it. Thus the Jerome Biblical Commentary states wisely and insightfully, “Perhaps St. John sees a final irony in the fact that Pilate, a Gentile, has consistently used the title, for whatever reasons, while it has been just as consistently refused by the Jews.”

In Ignatius Press' Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition), Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch note: “Signs were hung around the necks of crucified victims and then fastened to their crosses. Listed on the placards was a brief inventory of the criminal charges brought against them.”

I spoke with both liturgists and liturgical artists about the usage—or lack thereof—of the “I.N.R.I.” titulus on artistic representations of the crucifixes and none could come up with any liturgical or artistic “rule”. It seems to be completely at the artist (or his/her patron)’s discretion whether or not to include it.

Admittedly, I’d thought that the omission of the I.N.R.I. was some weird post-Vatican II revolt against biblical literalism or an attempt at 1960s minimalism. I was completely wrong: some of the earliest extant crucifixes do not have Pilate’s charge (cf. the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, considered one of the very earliest public representations of the crucifixion). “The early Church was less concerned with the crucified Christ than with the risen one, whom they imagined was returning very soon—even in their lifetimes,” noted one artist. Sir Kenneth Clark wryly mentions in Civilisation that the “Crucifixion, graphically represented, was not the best recruiting tool” for the early Church.

In the Renaissance—especially in the Baroque and Rococo periods following—the simple “I.N.R.I.” gets stretched out into almost a full sheet of paper (at least in some paintings), but this is a rarity on a freestanding, sculpted crucifix in a church.

Still, I find myself scratching my head as to why any artist of any period would leave off what the scriptures so clearly state was very much present on the sacred wood—the lignum vitae—of the Cross itself. Further, I can’t figure out what is gained (artistically or theologically) by not having the “INRI” on the Crucifix.

In my own home I have a Benedictine crucifix and there is the INRI. I also have a Carmelite crucifix, and there too, an inscription is noted as “The King of Glory” (strangely in English). On a Franciscan cross—a Confirmation gift—there is no inscription. On my “sick-kit” crucifix, the INRI is there.

I can see some commonsense logic in omitting the lettering on very small crucifixes (such as on a Rosary) where it could hardly be seen, let alone read, or on a necklace or ring. But in a church where the large, central Crucifix is given pride of place (along with the tabernacle and the altar) it seems—seems—to me (and I am neither an artist nor a liturgist) that you’d want to have the most complete representation of the scene at Golgotha (which is why some crucifixes have a skull at their base, from that name “The place of the skull” or in Latin “Calvaris”, hence our “Calvary”).

So back to the title of this piece: is a crucifix that lacks the “INRI” script in some way “incomplete”? While the experts I’ve spoken to—and I’m grateful for their time and input—think not, I’m not so sure. I can see nothing gained and only a possible loss of a crucial link not only to the Bible (one of the few instances where all four Gospel accounts agree on a very specific detail, namely the inscription), but to the Logos. Jesus—“The Word was made flesh”—seems to almost call for those words above his head, a caption, as it were, of this artistic rendition of what he suffered, yes, but also who He was—and perhaps more importantly, who people thought He was. “And you? Who do YOU say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) To this question, the Crucifix is a didactic tool to help us answer again and again—despite the sots and thralls of this life lived so often in a valley of tears, “You are Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.