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Basic Christian Iconography: the “Good Shepherd”

November 10th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

In the Christian catacombs dating from the second through the fourth centuries, there are two categories of images painted on walls and ceilings, and carved on sarcophagi. In one category we find scenes depicting stories from scripture. That, of course, does not surprise us. However, in the second category, there are many images that do not appear to be part of a story. In fact, these images are shared, both in design and in primary meaning, with those decorating pagan burial chambers.

Shared images —those images we find in both pagan and Christian funerary art— are sometimes referred to as non-narrative images because they appear most often as isolated images lacking an environment or background that would suggest a story line.

Shared non-narrative images were usually depicted in the same fashion whether appearing in a pagan or Christian context. In fact, in many instances it is difficult to tell a Christian burial chamber from a pagan one based solely on the images depicted on the walls and ceilings. Standard pagan funerary images were often used in Christian context as long as they did not contradict Christian sensibilities and as long as they could be understood to have a Christian interpretation.

(click on the photographs)

Left: Hermes (Mercury) as a shepherd. As a crosser of boundaries, Hermes ("guide of the soul"),  brought newly-dead souls to the underworld, Hades. Right: Calf-Bearer , ca. 570 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Christian imagery got its start through the adoption and modifica- tion of pagan images. If we were to substitute the calf in the pagan statue above with a lamb we might very well identify it as the Christian ‘Good Shepherd’.

Left: Hermes (Mercury) as a shepherd. As a crosser of boundaries, Hermes (“guide of the soul”), brought newly-dead souls to the underworld, Hades. Right: Calf-Bearer, ca. 570 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Christian imagery got its start
through the adoption and modification of pagan images. If we were to substitute the calf in the pagan statue above with a lamb we might very well identify it as the Christian ‘Good Shepherd’.

The image of the (good) shepherd is one example of a non-narrative image (it is, in this case of course, also related to the biblical story of the “Good Shepherd”). There are variations in the depiction of shepherd imagery whether pagan or Christian. He is usually shown as young, beardless and wearing a short tunic with boots and often carrying a purse, musical pipes or a bucket filled with ewe milk. In some cases he is shown standing among a few sheep, carrying one on his shoulders. At other times he is shown milking a ewe. Carrying a lamb/sheep is the most common representation of the shepherd type.

dobl shepherd

Left: Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is represented in this Christian catacomb as carrying the deceased (represented by the lambs) to heaven (“Paradise”, as represented by the trees and birds). In the painting we see some context: trees and birds which help us understand the Christian meaning. The statue on the right has no context. It is now known as Christian and yet it was thought to be pagan for a long time after being discovered.

The Christian icon of the Good Shepherd is, of course, well known to Christians and we think of the imagery as unique to Christianity and so it may be troubling to learn that it originated in pagan imagery. That seems, somehow, to cause us to think that perhaps Christianity is not all that unique –and truthful– after all.

I was once on a flight seated next to a man who noticed I was reading the Divine Office which he interpreted as being a Bible. He remarked that he used to be a Christian but was put off when he learned that so many Christian “things” actually had origins or similarities to paganism. I’m not sure if maybe he thought I was ripe for picking. I told him that his observation of pagan “inspiration” was one of the reasons why I became convinced of the truth of Christianity.

Pagan, polytheistic, and other pre-Christian religions were not so much evil inventions as misguided attempts to reconnect the fallen world with God. They represented man’s searching for a way back. They had some sense of which way to go but lacked a truthful, reliable, guide. With the Incarnation, God came into the world as it was and redeemed it. All those previous wandering routes could be made straight, realigned, reoriented in Christian truth. Tweaked, as it were. (It’s more than just that, of course, but I’m trying to be brief and simple, here.) God, in the Incarnation, redeemed man and the world. He didn’t destroy man and the world in order to make something entirely new.

The shepherd image, when used by the pagans, personified gentle protective care, and charity or philanthropy; good sentiments. The shepherd, sometimes, was also a symbol of the god Hermes who guided the deceased to the underworld and the afterlife. The Christian image of the Good Shepherd, on a primary level, communicates the same sentiments (with exception to the reference to Hermes).

In their myths pagans yearned for a “good” shepherd. God provided the “Good Shepherd” who, in addition to being gentle and protective, laid down his own life for the flock so his sheep might enjoy eternity with God.

Several Christian icons or symbols have their origins in pagan imagery. I’ll post a few as part of this series on “Basic Christian Iconography”.

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One Response to “Basic Christian Iconography: the “Good Shepherd””

  1. avatar christian says:

    Excellent post!


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