The month after Columbus returned from his first voyage, he began signing his name in a new way—a pyramid of dots and letters (see above). Although he never explained what the mysterious signet meant, he used it on nearly everything he signed until his death 13 years later. He even ordered his direct heirs to use the pattern as well.

But what does it mean?

Scholars have put forth at least eight possible explanations. One of the simplest suggests this:


Sum Altissimi Salvatoris

Xristus Maria Yosephus


This would read, “Servant I am of the Most Exalted Savior; Christ, Mary, and Joseph; Christ-bearer.”

Other explanations say the letter S used three times in a pyramid represents the Trinity; the letters mean Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”). Other versions take the Y as meaning Queen Isabella, Jesus, or John the Baptist.

It’s even possible Columbus designed the signature to have multiple meanings. No one knows for sure. Like the man himself, the signature remains a mystery.

But virtually all explanations point to Columbus’s deep religious devotion. And there is no doubt about the meaning of the bottom line. It is a Greek-Latin construction of Columbus’s first name, emphasizing the fact that Christopher literally means “Christ bearer.”

In the words of Bartolomé de Las Casas: “He was called Cristóbal, which is to say, Christum Ferens, which means the bearer of Christ. And it was this way that he often signed his name, for the truth is that he was the first to open the gates of the Ocean Sea in order to bear our Savior Jesus Christ over the waves to those remote realms and lands.”

Kevin A. Miller is editor of Christian History.