Need help with Latin Formula for an unusual Saint Benedict Cross?
Actually this is a Plague Sheet, sometimes called a Plague Cross! There are many different styles and various images of saints accompanying this Plague Cross. However the basic lettering always remains the same.
In early October 2020, one bishop of Poland suggested placing “plague crosses”, where it would be possible to pray to the Savior of the world for mercy and salvation' during calls for strict social-distancing and hygeine standards in churches to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It is found in some editions of the Raccolta
It is sometimes called Zachariah's Cross. A double cross, on one side side Zacharias and his blessing, on the other St. Benedict and the lettering of the cross of St. Benedict. Protection against the plague.
The Black Death gave impetus to hand-production of plague amulets offering divine protection and supernatural healing. In the 15th century, the technological innovations of block printing and typographical printing helped meet growing demand. Inexpensive and expendable, printed amulets were batch-produced on paper for sale and distribution by clergy or itinerant peddlers.
‘Pestblätter’, or plague sheets, spread across German-speaking lands over the next centuries, integrating popular religious imagery with Latin or vernacular text. The emphasis was usually on two plague saints: Sebastian (d. 290 AD), who according to legend interposed his body to defend ancient Rome from a hail of plague arrows; and Roch (1295–1327), portrayed as a pilgrim who had triumphed over disease, and often shown lifting his tunic to reveal a plague sore on one of his thighs.
Text and symbols in the plague amulet reinforced the promise of saintly intercession against the plague. At the top of the Patriarchal cross is the Triumphal Inscription (INRI), and at the bottom is the Sacred Heart pierced by the Three Nails of the Crucifixion, popular in the 17th century as a symbol of Christ’s divine love for the Christian faithful. Between the Triumphal Inscription and Sacred Heart are ‘characteres’ interspersed with Latin crosses and configured in cruciform:
♰ Z ♰ D I A I : I S ♰ B I Z ♰ S A B ♰ Z M R A ♰ H G F ♰ B F R S
Medieval liturgical formulas could be abbreviated by giving only the initial letter of each word. For example, P.S.I.S.S.S. could stand for ‘Pater Sanctus, Iesus Sanctus, Spiritus Sanctus’. This simple scheme had been used in textual amulets since the 13th century, though ‘characteres’ could also include arcane symbols and magical script without verbal equivalents. Unfortunately, without a word-by-word explanation, it can be difficult to make sense of these inscriptions.
Yet at the time this plague amulet was in use, clerics would have recognised the ‘characteres’ as a shorthand for the Saint Zacharias Blessing, despite a typographical error in the top crossbar (♰ D I A I : should have read ♰ D I A ♰). Bernhard Sannig (1638–1704), a Franciscan theologian active in Prague, explained the text as a remedy against the plague in his ‘Rituale ecclesiasticum’ (1698), and Gelasius de Cilia (1654–1721), an Augustinian canon from Regensburg, gave an almost verbatim version in ‘Locupletissimus Thesaurus’ (1709). Both propagated the legend that Saint Zacharias (d. 116 AD), bishop of Jerusalem, had collected this set of prayers against the plague, which were later written down on parchment as ‘characteres’, preserved in a Spanish monastery (Fraytes or Frailes), and recommended in 1546 at the Council of Trent for their efficacy.
Gelasius de Cilia noted that the text was inscribed on religious medallions and metal crosses. Physical evidence for such objects survives in plague crosses produced c. 1650–1760 in bronze or other metals, inscribed with the Saint Zacharias Blessing. Some of these, such as the cross shown below, have the Saint Benedict Blessing in ‘characteres’ on the verso.
The Latin crosses in the Saint Zacharias Blessing did not serve as punctuation, nor as prompts to supplicants to cross themselves, as one encounters in many textual amulets. Instead, they stood for specific invocations of divine protection from the plague, each beginning with the word ‘crux’ (cross). The Christian numerology of seven crosses also enhanced efficacy. Each majuscule letter stood for a bit of amuletic text or scripture, mostly asking God to drive away the plague and protect the supplicant and other Christian faithful from it. For example, ‘D’ stood for ‘Deus, Deus meus expelle pestem a me, et a loco isto, et libera me’ (God, my God drive the plague from me, and from this place, and liberate me).
Most amulet users would not have hesitated to use plague amulets and crosses even if they did not know what each majuscule letter signified. If anything, the mystery of ‘characteres’ served to enhance amulets’ perceived magical efficacy. Christians used plague amulets in the expectation of receiving divine protection from a dreaded disease, whose bacterial origins and medical treatment would not be known for centuries.
Deciphering a central European plague amulet
Plague Sheets often portrayed many saints on them as well as Our Lady of Pity or the Madonna and Child.