IHS, it reads. These initials represent Jesus. IHS are some of the Greek letters of the name of the Son of God and it can also stand for Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus, Saviour of Humanity) and In Hoc Signo (In This Sign – which implies ‘conquer’ at the end of the sentence. Conquer what, I wondered when I first heard this as a teenager. Conquer our enemies with violent force? That’s not what Jesus meant. That’s not what I signed up for. Conquer our fears? Conquer the violence of darker corners with non-violent resistance that goes beyond death itself for love? That’s more like it.)
This object is a fragment. Separated now from its sister fragments, it was part of a collection from the textiles workroom of an Anglican convent. These women were radical, in their prayers in women-only spaces, making holy things with sacred hands. The community of women, whose textiles were world-famous and turn up in bits and pieces everywhere in this globalised yet fragmented frame of an empire that, thank God, no longer conquers, at least not in the conventionally violent sense, is no longer the community it once was.
The textiles collection was dispersed recently. I was responsible for cataloguing a small portion of it. I have since worn one of their Venetian chasubles when presiding at my first mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary on an impossibly sweltering July evening. I have given another of these IHS fragments to a priest who showed me what fierce love for the people of God can look like. I have worn one of the sisters’ white stoles, teeming with embroidered petals, for mass with a community of priests, sisters and brothers in Christ, queer and straight, serving God as best we can. The stole’s silk is shredded and some of the threads are loose. I treat it like a frail body. Just like this IHS, glittering yet fragile. Just like every living thing, really.
Ayla Lepine’s work explores theology and the arts in Britain from the nineteenth century to the present. Following her MA and PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, she held postdoctoral fellowships at the Courtauld and Yale, and was a Lecturer and Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex 2014-18. She has published widely including articles on the British art and religious visual culture in Architectural History and British Art Studies, and co-edited books including Architecture and Religious Communities 1860-1970: Building the Kingdom (Routledge, 2018). She is an Anglican priest in London.