Commentary by Hovak Najarian
From the time of the early church until today, images and symbols have become part of Christianity but in the first several hundred years there were very few. The fish and the lamb were early symbols and the Good Shepherd was among those that followed. In depicting aspects of their faith, image makers (now called artists) often used established symbols from non-Christian sources when they were appropriate and had meaning in a Christian context.
Because the image of Christ as a shepherd is such an established part of church art today, one could easily regard it as being an image that is unique to Christianity. Its origin, however, goes back to prototypes found in Archaic Greek sculpture. A calf, goat, or ram on the shoulders of a man is found in works that were created several hundred years before the coming of Christ; Roman copies are known also. The subject of the Greek “Ram Bearer” is of an animal that is being carried to the place where it will be sacrificed. This pre-Christian image was adapted and used by Christians, not as a sheep or a goat being carried to the place of sacrifice, but rather to depict Christ as the Good Shepherd; the loving guardian and protector.
The painter of the Good Shepherd in the Catacomb of Priscilla was familiar undoubtedly with Roman copies of Greek sculpture and also familiar with paintings of pastoral scenes in Roman homes. The facial characteristics of Christ in this fresco are similar to figures seen in wall paintings of that time. He is beardless, without a halo, and not dressed in long white robes as he is depicted in later works. In Christian art, halos had not come into use as a symbol at the time this was painted.
It is thought that depictions of Christ were slow in developing because image makers were not sure how to portray him. Christ’s characteristics tended to differ according to social context. The Eastern Church portrayed Christ with a beard but in the Western Church often he was clean shaven until as late as the twelfth century. During the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance periods the image of Christ continued to evolve and even today there is debate regarding his true appearance. The image of Christ in the Catacomb of Priscilla reflects the time period in which it was created.
The image itself, however, was not created simply out of someone’s imagination. It had its roots in many centuries before the advent of Christ.
© 2012 Hovak Najarian