The Good Shepherd’s Disappearance

Christ the Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 3-4th century CE

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

The Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome, mid 3rd century

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.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 376.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 377.

  • Margarida says:

    I was wondering also about that subject, because I think it’s intersting to notice that in 17th century indo-portuguese art, the image of the Good Sheppard reapers linked to the “Companhia de Jesus”.
    But there are differences between the images of the 5th century and the ones of 17th century: Jesus is represented as little boy and this works are small sculptures made with ivory.
    Here are some links:

  • Val S. says:

    Interesting analysis, and something I hadn’t really thought about before. All four of those points seem relevant, and even just variations on the same theme – as the church became The Church, a stronger image was required. The examples you give of the Good Shepherd are both taken from catacombs, painted when Christians were still worshiping in secret. The image of a shepherd that could hold his dispersed flock together would have been more meaningful than it was to an organized church with extensive property. A beard was also added over time, which further enforces the idea of a stronger, more mature figurehead.

    I don’t know much about Marianism, but in a similar way to developing Christ’s image, the Church developed Mary’s imagery to suit developing theology and ideology.

  • Francis DeStefano says:


    Emile Male, the great 19th century Art historian, puzzled over the same question. “The forty parables sometimes represented by the painters of Mt. Athos were seldom illustrated in our medieval art. Why did these beautiful stories, illuminated by so clear a light, fail to inspire our artists? Why was the story of the Good Shepherd no longer used in the thirteenth century–a story that had been cherished by the painters of the Catacombs…? It is difficult to say.”

    So, it is not only the shepherd. “Only four parables are represented in our cathedrals: the stories of the Good Samaritan, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Prodigal Son,and Dives and Lazarus.”


  • Thanks for the comments, Val and Francis! Val, if you are interested in learning a little bit about depictions of Mary (especially in contrast with Eve), I’d recommend reading “Eve and Mary: Conflicting Images of Medieval Woman” by Henry Kraus (PDF available HERE). Kraus talks a little bit about how the imagery for Mary evolved over time.

    Frank, I’ve been thinking about Emile Male quite a bit this week, as I’ve looked for some student reading assignments on medieval art. Thanks for including his quote. It is interesting to consider how certain stories and images were popular at different points in Christianity, even beyond the Good Shepherd imagery.

  • Margarida, thanks for your comment! I have never seen these Indo-Portuguese examples before. How interesting that they were popular in the 17th century! I wonder if there is a cultural reason for why this imagery became popular at that time.

    The Indo-Portuguese iconography is a bit different from the early Christian examples. I noticed in your links that Christ is seated and rests his hand in his palm, while also holding a lamb in his lap. In contrast, the early Christians often depict a standing Christ with a lamb draped over his shoulders. I wonder if there is a historical precedent or explanation for the specific Indo-Portuguese iconography? It would be fun to research this topic more. Thanks for the link!

  • Margarida says:

    I read a book, it is in Portuguese, where the author says that this iconography has influence from the budhist religion, for example in the way Christ is seated, with his eyes closed, with a hand pointing his forehead. On another hand, sometimes the lamb is on his shoulder. The iconography of this sculptures is very interesting because sometimes Christ is over a small mountain where there is a sculpture of Saint Mary Magdalene and of the Fountain of Life. I also find this subject very interesting and I would like to learn more about it.

  • Very interesting, Margarida! Obrigada pelo seu comentário. I will have to study this subject more. I suppose the Buddhist influence makes sense, due to the colonial expansion of the Portuguese during the 17th century. Interessante!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.