Sunday, May 15, 2011

Good Shepherd Sunday – Fourth Sunday of Easter

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, I Am the Sheepgate
Engraved by Philips Galle
Flemish, 1565
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Each year the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Easter is text extracted from John Chapter 10, no matter which cycle we are in, hence the name “Good Shepherd Sunday”. This year (Cycle A) the Gospel is John 10:1-10:

"Jesus said:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the earliest Christian images and one of the most popular.
Good Shepherd sculpture,
3rd century
Jerusalem, Rockefeller Acheological Museum

Early Christian images were often symbolic and less specifically set in the “here and now” than later Christian images. Partly this was due to the need to be discreet in a world where Christians were often viewed with suspicion at best and persecuted even to death at worst. The image summoned up by the words of Jesus, what the quotation from John above calls “this figure of speech” may have become so popular in the early Christian world because it blended seamlessly into an already existing world of pagan images of shepherd figures, known as kriophoroi. As such, it could easily escape the notice of the Roman authorities during times of persecution.

Usually the image took the form of a young, beardless man carrying a sheep across his shoulders and sometimes accompanied by other sheep. Here are some of the images that resulted.
Catacomb Ceiling Painting
3rd century
Rome, Catacomb of Priscilla
Glass vessel
Egypt (Alexandria), 2nd - 4th century
Zagreb, Muzaj Mimara

3rd-4th centuries
Vatican City, Pio Cristiano Museum

4th century
Vatican City, Pio Cristiano Museum
4th century
Paris, Musee du Louvre

Over time this image eventually changed, especially after the persecutions ended and Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire.  The need for discretion was gone and the true identity of the Good Shepherd could be made known.  Now the Shepherd was seen as seated, surrounded by His sheep.  That indicator of holiness, the halo, was added around His head.  Even the cross, that most Christian of symbols, could be added.

This is the image that was used for the beautiful mosaic that decorates the interior of the fifth-century tomb of Galla Placidia, a Roman woman who had played a significant role in the history of the western Empire during the barbarian invasions.
5th century
Ravenna, Tomb of Galla Placidia

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