Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Good Shepherd

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.
Archaic Greek, c. 560 BC
Athens, Acropolis 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.  Not only did this image seamlessly connect to the pre-Christian world it is also such a perfect image of one aspect of the Good Shepherd that it has remained the dominant image ever since.

Images of a male figure carrying a sheep or calf across his shoulders have a long pre-Christian history.  One of the earliest and most famous is the Archaic Greek statue, known as the Moscophoros, dated to 560 BC, which was part of the original decoration of the Parthenon, prior to its destruction by the Persians in 480 BC.  That early statue shows the figure of a man with a calf draped over his shoulders.  It was commissioned as an offering to the goddess Athena, the deity of the Parthenon.

Hermes Kriophoros
Greek, c. Fifth Century BC
Rome, Museo Barracco

In later statues the animal draped over the shoulders was most often a sheep, that is a lamb, ewe or ram.

Usually the Early Christian image of the Good Shepherd took the form of a young, beardless man carrying a sheep or ram across his shoulders and sometimes accompanied by other sheep. Here are some of the images that resulted during the Early Christian period.
Good Shepherd, from the Coemeterium Majus
Roman, 3rd Century
Rome, Coemeterium Majus
This may not be a Christian image.  Since it came from the main cemetery of Rome and not from one of the specifically Christian burial sites, it may be pagan.  However, it is a good example of how ambiguous the image of the "Good Shepherd" was during the years in which the Christian Church was operating virtually in hiding.
Christ the Good Shepherd Under the Guise of Orpheus
Roman, 3rd-4th Century
Rome, Catacomb of Domitilla
We can be more certain of the identification of this image due to its location in a Christian catacomb.  However, there is nothing obviously different from a pagan image of Orpheus, the musician who was renowned for his ability to calm animals with his playing.
Christ as the Good Shepherd
Roman, c. 250-300
Rome, Catacomb of Saint Callixtus
Christ as the Good Shepherd,
Roman, 3rd Century
Rome, Catacomb of Priscilla

Christ as the Good Shepherd
Roman, 3rd Century
Rome, Catacomb of Domitilla
Good Shepherd
Roman (Syria or Palestine), 3rd c.
Jerusalem, Rockefeller Archeological Museum
Good Shepherd
Roman (Asia Minor), 280-290
Cleveland, Museum of Art

Sarcophagus with the Good Shepherd
Roman, 270-300
Vatican, Museo Pio-Cristiano

The Good Shepherd
Roman, Late 3rd-Beginning 4th Century
Vatican, Museo Pio-Cristiano
Fragment of a Sarcphagus with the Good Shepherd
Roman, 300-325
Vatican, Museo Pio-Cristiano

Front of the Sarcophagus of a Child with the Good Shepherd
Roman, Beginning of the 4th Century
Vatican, Museo Pio-Cristiano
Sarcophagus of Livia Primitiva
Roman, Beginning of 4th Century
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Glass Chalice with the Good Shepherd
Egyptian (Alexandria), 2nd through 4th Centuries
Zagreb, Muzaj Mimara
The Good Shepherd
Roman, c. 350-375
Rome, Catacomb of Domitilla
The Good Shepherd Giving the Law to Saints Peter and Paul
Roman, c. 350
Rome, Church of Santa Costanza

Santa Costanza was originally built as a mausoleum for Constantine's daughters and we can see that, with the acceptance of Christianity as the religion of the Imperial family, the need for discretion was gone and the true identity of the Good Shepherd could be made known.  In this image Christ is shown in the posture of the lawgiver who presents the New Law to Saints Peter and Paul and as the Good Shepherd, surrounded by His sheep. That indicator of holiness, the halo, has been added around His head.  At His feet is the flowing water of life.
Front of a Sarcophagus with Christ the Good Shepherd and the Twelve Apostles
Roman, 375-400
Vatican, Museo Pio-Cristiano
Christ, the Good Shepherd
Late Antique, 425-450
Ravenna, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
The image of Orpheus, seated amid his flock has been transfigured in  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.  There is absolutely no doubt about the identity of the Shepherd who is crowned with the sign of holiness, the nimbus or halo, and leans on His staff, the sign of the Cross.  This is the Shepherd who not only tends the sheep with love, but who has sacrificed Himself for their sake.

Christ Separating the Sheep and the Goats
Byzantine, 6th Century
Ravenna, Sant' Apollinare Nuovo
Part of the job of a shepherd is to protect the sheep in His care.  And this may mean separating them from their competitors, the goats.  In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says that, at the end of time, the faithful sheep will be separated from the unfaithful goats.  The sheep will inherit eternal life in the kingdom of God, while the goats will be sent into eternal punishment for the sins they have committed.

I was unable to find images of the Good Shepherd from the centuries of the barbarian invasions and the resulting disintegration of the Roman Empire in Western Europe.  This is not too surprising as these were centuries in which there was great political instability, looting and upheaval, even as the new arrivals settled down into a newly divided Europe.  Such conditions were unlikely to foster a great deal of art or to preserve what is created.  However, there were periods, such as the time of the Carolingian Empire in the ninth century, when such images may have been produced.  If I find any I will add them to this essay. For the moment, however, there is a blank space in the narrative.

When it does pick up again, we find ourselves in the Romanesque period, with a capital from the church of Santa Maria la Nuova at Monreale in Sicily.  At this time Sicily was under the control of the Norman dynasty that had ended the Arab occupation of the island in late eleventh century.  Sicily is at a crossroads of travel and commerce in the Mediterranean, heir to the classical past as well as to North African and Byzantine influences.  And, in this capital, we can see a return to the traditional form of the kriophoroi, the figure carrying a sheep across His shoulders.

The Good Shepherd Capital
Italian, 1174-1189
Monreale, Santa Maria la Nuova
This became the dominant form of the Good Shepherd image for the next seven hundred years.  These images should mostly be read as relating to the parable of the lost sheep found in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 15:4-7):
"What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?
And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy
and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’
I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."
The Lost Sheep
from Speculum humanae salvationis
Italian (Bologna), c. 1350-1400
Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 593, fol. 27v
Here Christ bears the lost sheep on His shoulders and is welcomed by two smiling angels who are
"rejoicing in heaven".  Perspective is still a bit of a problem for the artist so he shows one angel's 
wings pointing up and the other's pointing down.
The Lost Sheep
German, c. 1376-1400
Stendal, Evanglical Church of Saint James

The Lost Sheep
German, c. 1390
Söst (Westphalia), Parish Church of Saint Peter
Gold Scrolls Group, The Lost Sheep
from Speculum humanae salvationis
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1440-1460
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 385, fol. 36r

The Lost Sheep
from Speculum humanae salvationis
Unknown origin, c. 1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9585, fol. 39
The Lost Sheep
German (Middle Rhine), c. 1500
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum

The Good Shepherd
Dutch, c. 1540
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
In this image, the theme of the lost sheep, draped over the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, is augmented by 
including the scene of the Crucifixion in which the Good Shepherd laid down His life for His sheep.
The Good Shepherd
Dutch, c. 1550
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin
This slightly later image makes the same point.

Workshop of Maarten de Vos, The Lost Sheep
Flemish, c. 1569
Celle, Schlosskapelle
Workshop of Maarten de Vos, The Good Shepherd Protecting the Sheep
Flemish, c. 1569
Celle, Schlosskapelle

These two images by the workshop of Maarten de Vos represent two aspects of the charge of the Good Shepherd.  He reclaims the lost sheep and protects the flock from predators.  The Lost Sheep panel also ties the image to the Old Testament by including the opening lines of Psalm 23 "The Lord is my shepherd".

Cristobal Garcia Salmeron, The Lost Sheep
Spanish, c. 1660-1665
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
Later interpretations include the two closely related images below by Philippe de Champaigne and his nephew, Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne.

Philippe de Champaigne, The Lost Sheep
Franco-Flemish, c. 1664
Magny-les-Hameaux, Musée de Port-Royal des Champs
Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne, The Lost Sheep
Franco-Flemish, c. 1670
Lille, Palais de Beaux-Arts

N. Chasteau, The Lost Sheep
from a Prayer Book
French, c. 1700-1750
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 84, fol. 41
Edward Burne-Jones, The Lost Sheep
Design for Window
English, 1857
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

James Tissot, The Lost Sheep
French, 1886-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum

While the motif of the Lost Sheep, carried on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, is the most common and longest-lived iconographic treatment of the Good Shepherd there are others. Among them are images of the Good Shepherd as leader of His sheep.

The Good Shepherd
from the Sermons of Maurice de Sully
Italian (Milan or Genoa), c.1320-1330
Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 187, fol. 14
Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy, The Lamb of God as the Good Shepherd
Roman de la Rose_French (Paris), c. 1375-1385
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 132, fol. 142r
In this unusual image the Good Shepherd is Himself a lamb, the Lamb of God, identified by the halo with a cross and the shepherd's staff.  
Hans Bol, The Heavenly Jerusalem, with Christ as the Good Shepherd
Flemish, 1575
London, Courtauld Gallery
Marten van Vlackenborch, The Good Shepherd
Dutch, c. 1580-1590
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
I really love this picture for the many sheep-related activities that the earthly shepherds are carrying out in the foreground.  Two women and one man are shown shearing the sheep (removing their wooly fleeces), while others wash them in preparation for shearing, or carry them to the shearers.  In the background a newly shorn sheep looks out on the new grass of a meadow.  Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the pond, the Good Shepherd brings his sheep out of their sheepfold.  At one point in my life I was involved in some of this same activity and I can say with truth that, although most shearing today is done with electric shears (a bit like a large electric razor), hand shears look exactly the same today as they did in the late 16th century.
Abel Grimmer, The Good Shepherd
Flemish, 1611
Private Collection
Until the seventeenth century the image of the Good Shepherd was presented as guide and defender. However, in the work of Murillo a certain sentimentality began to enter the iconography.  Murillo and his workshop painted a series of pictures in which the Good Shepherd is the infant or child Jesus instead of the adult.  Judging by the copies that are widely distributed in museums this proved a popular subject.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, The Good Shepherd
Spanish, c. 1660
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Bartolome Esteban Murillo
Spanish, c. 1660
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
This kind of soft-focused treatment infiltrated later images of the adult Good Shepherd as, no doubt did the popularity of the aria "He Shall Feed His Flock Life a Shepherd" from George Freidrich Handel's oratorio "Messiah", which derives from Isaiah, Chapter 40,
"Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
leading the ewes with care."
 (Isaiah 40:11)
But this is only a small part of Isaiah's words.  The whole of that chapter celebrates the awesome power and majesty of the saving God.

Unfortunately, this soft focused treatment became the dominant one, beginning with the late seventeenth century.  So that, by the later part of the nineteenth century, images of the Good Shepherd show Jesus cradling the lamb in His arms, rather than continuing the classic stance of carrying it over the shoulders.  The lamb, now not so much retrieved from being lost, as cuddled because of being weak, becomes little more than a prop and a toy.
William Dobson, The Good Shepherd
English, 1868
Sheffield (UK), Museums Sheffield
Frederick James Shields, The Good Shepherd
English, c. 1900
Manchester (UK), Manchester Art Gallery

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Good Shepherd Window
American, 1909
New York, New York Historical Society
Warner Sallman, The Good Shepherd
American, c. 1946

Images also became softer and "prettier", so soft and pretty in fact that it is difficult to see in them the Good Shepherd who will defend His sheep by laying down His life for them.

© M. Duffy, 2011, revised 2017

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