|"Christ the Good Shepherd."|
3rd - 4th century A.D.
(Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome)
Copyright © Edward Riojas
It is extremely difficult for modern Christians to imagine life without the image of the cross. It is so much a part of our thought and being that its absence would be a massive jolt. Not only is it central to our theology, but the image of the cross has been spread into unlikely places like fashion and national branding. It no longer surprises anyone to see it apart from the Church or even connected to its enemies. Yet the image of the cross was not widely used in the early Church – if it was used at all.
Displaying the cross for early Christians would be very much akin to us using images of an electric chair or a gas chamber. It would be inappropriate. It would be scandalous. The question must then be asked: What images DID the early Church embrace?
The idea that the good, pious people of the Church never had “graven” images is just silly. No one overreacted to the Law in such manner – that idea came much later when folks decided they probably should have scruples and insulated themselves from breaking commandments.
Beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem, the decorative arts played a large role among the Israelites. One need only look at early Jewish manuscripts to see the opulence given to sacred writings. And, yes, they used images beyond flowers and pomegranates.
But Jerusalem was not a sealed vacuum when Jesus Christ began His ministry. The Romans were in control. There were also subtle influences from other cultures that brushed up against Israel. Indeed, Israel had been force-fed a nasty diet of Babylonian culture, which probably filtered down through the generations. And Rome borrowed much from Greece. This cultural cocktail had influence on at least one of the earliest Christian images – The Good Shepherd.
One of Israel’s great heroes was King David and, although he was most often depicted regally, his roots as a faithful shepherd were equally lauded. Given the sins of his life, it was also natural to prefer thoughts the of future king as an unadulterated youth among gentle sheep.
|"Hermes Kriophoros" Roman copy.|
(Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica, Rome)
However, the Jewish nation was not the only one familiar with shepherds. Sheep were pretty much a part of the landscape wherever one went, including the Apennine Peninsula. The mythology of Rome – and Greece, by extension – included gods to suit every interest under the sun. Hermes Kriophoros (“Ram-bearer”) was a figure that commemorated a sacrificial event in Greek mythology. It didn’t have anything to do with shepherding, but the pose of the image, especially in Roman copies, is eerily familiar to our modern eyes.
While the disparate Judaic and mythological figures had no influence on the Christian idea of The Good Shepherd, their similar images alone retained a high degree of familiarity, which can be influence enough.
Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of outside influence is the fact that the earliest images of The Good Shepherd do not show a bearded shepherd. They are not renderings of Jesus. The figure is always a young shepherd – not a young carpenter. They rarely sport halos. In fact, the only indication that these are symbols of Christ Jesus is the context of their location. It would be many years later that a tri-radiant nimbus was added to images of The Good Shepherd, indicating that He is a Person of the Holy Trinity.