Thursday, August 23rd, 2012
The Good Shepherd’s Disappearance
Anyone with a basic knowledge of Early Christian art is probably familiar with depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd. In this imagery, Christ appears as a beardless youth, often carrying a lamb on his shoulders. It’s common for art historians to draw connections between these depictions of Christ and Apollo, or even to point out how earlier classical statues (like the Moschophoros from the acropolis in Athens) may have served as prototypes for the Good Shepherd imagery.
However, it’s interesting to consider how the Good Shepherd iconography practically vanishes in the 5th century CE. Today I’ve been reading about this phenomenon in a short article, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art” by Boniface Ramsey.1 Ramsey explains that the Good Shepherd iconography was replaced (or perhaps “subsumed” is appropriate?) by imagery which often depicts Christ as a teacher. The shepherd/teacher transition isn’t too surprising, since Christ’s role as a Good Shepherd was viewed as didactic one: the shepherd held the responsibility to feed (or symbolically “teach”) his flock.2
Ramsey put forth four reasons as to why the Good Shepherd disappeared from Early Christian art, which I thought that I would briefly outline here:
1) The Church no longer wanted to promote Christ as a humble shepherd. In response to Arianism, which questioned the relationship between Christ and the all-powerful God, it appears that the Catholic Church wanted to emphasize the majesty of Christ. The depiction of Christ in Galla Placidia (c. 425 CE, Ravenna) seems to be a transitional image in relation to this argument: Christ is tending his flock while dressed in a royal or imperial robe.3
2) As the speculation about Christ became more complex, Christians might have felt like the Good Shepherd image lacked sufficient dogmatic content. Images of Christ as a teacher or a king might have been more favorable, since those images could convey more about Christ’s human nature or divinity.4
3) As post-Constantinian Christians became less defensive about their place in society, they might have felt less attachment to or need for the Good Shepherd (who protectively guards or defense his flock).5
4) The post-Constantinian Church may have been aware of its authority and power. Depictions of a humble shepherd might have been a reproach to post-Constantinian Church leaders. Instead, they may have felt more comfortable with images that depicted Christ as a teacher or king.6
Ramsey wrote this short article almost thirty years ago, but I think that he has presented some valid ideas. Do you know of some other theories regarding the disappearance of the Good Shepherd iconography? What depictions of the Good Shepherd do you like best?
1 Boniface Ramsey, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art,” The Harvard Theological Review 76, no. 3 (July 1983): 375-378.
3 Ibid., 376.
6 Ibid., 377.