The Good Shepherd

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The Good Shepherd, Cubiculum of the Donna Velata, Fresco on rock-cut tufa,  Ceiling fresco, Roman Early Christian, 3rd Century ( Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy).

Image and original data provided by SCALA, Florence/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.


Every artefact that has endured from the past, regardless of its age, serves as a footprint of that era. Frequently, a single object can represent multiple moments of a past time. This characteristic makes it valuable to historians who aim to interpret the past for their present-day peers. A material culture item is very often viewed as an illustration to convey a better sense of reality, but its potential is even greater when used as evidence of past life experiences. This is the case of the depiction of the good shepherd in the cubiculum of the Donna Velata in the catacomb of Pricilla, Rome. Just like a written document, when interpreted correctly, the fresco is a primary source of unique information.

The image of the good shepherd is frequently depicted in the funerary art of the Roman catacombs. This particular example is taken from the catacomb of Priscilla, which dates back to the 3rd century CE. The catacombs were underground burial places excavated in the soft tufa rock outside the city of Rome, by the first Christians. At this time, apart from the prevalent Roman pagan philosophy, Christianity was not the only spiritual movement flourishing in Rome. Indeed, from the time of the emperor Hadrian`s reign, the influence of the cultures of the Middle Eastern Roman provinces such as Greece and Asia Minor, as well as the later invasions from the North, contributed to the growth of diverse communities with the adoption of new deities, cults, and rites. Thus, contrary to popular belief that the catacombs were places of refuge for Christians during times of persecution, the catacombs were legal cemeteries where Romans who did not cremate their dead could bury their kin.

It is unsurprising that the depiction of the Good Shepherd on this ceiling fresco echoes a pagan motif despite its Christian symbolism. The beardless shepherd, dressed in a simple tunic, stands in a typical Greco-Roman contrapposto, carrying a large horned goat on his shoulders and holding a staff. He is flanked on either side by a sheep and another goat, presenting a frontal symmetrical composition that lends a transcendental quality to the image. At his back, on either side of him, are two trees, each with a dove sitting on a branch.

 Images of the Hermes Criophorus, or the shepherd carrying a ram or a calf, appeared very early in Greek sculpture. The Good Shepherd is possibly an adaptation of this figure. Just as the Greek Hermes, accompanying attendant to the underworld, relates to a safe passage and well wishes for an auspicious afterlife, the Good Shepherd symbolises deliverance. However, while the Criophorus prepares his ram for sacrificial slaughter, the Good Shepherd protects his sheep from harm. Pagan representations of the shepherd on sarcophagi and in catacombs are thought to represent humanitas or philanthropia, the charitable and selfless qualities that both pagan and Christian communities valued. However, the Christian Good Shepherd saves errant sinners of the living world, thus delivering them to a tranquil afterlife. In this way, the simple rendition of the image of the Good Shepherd, the simplification of forms, and the reduction of expressive elements that pare down the content to an essential schematic design emphasises a symbolic meaning that connects both the viewer and the dead buried there.  It reflects the period when Christian art was focused on the idea of salvation and resurrection in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries.

In the fresco, the spiritual meaning is also enhanced by animal representations that act as symbols to make the work more recognisably Christian. J. Stevenson has interpreted the he-goat carried by the shepherd as a symbol of lust that is being purged. In other depictions of the Good Shepherd, for example, in the catacombs of Praetextatus, the shepherd is defending his flock against an ass and a wild boar, representing the devil and immorality. The doves in the trees beside the shepherd in the Priscilla catacomb symbolise the soul’s flight from the body on its peaceful journey to the next world. It may be noted, however, that this idea was derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphic equivalent. There is, therefore, a measure of interchange of forms and symbols, and the Christian influence is not prevailing at this time.

A closer look at the shepherd also shows that he may have a set of pipes or a lyre at his side. The inclusion of a musical instrument in the depiction of the Good Shepherd in other catacombs, such as those of Callistus and Domitilla, is very clear. The Good Shepherd borrows from the legendary Greek figure Orpheus in these representations. It may be argued that Orpheus’s ability to tame wild beasts is a metaphor for Jesus`s ability to transform the evil nature of humans into good.  Although borrowing from the existing pagan culture and style, the images have been adapted to the function which they serve, that is, to promote the idea of atonement, afterlife, and salvation in the chaotic situation of the time and hence their popular use in the vaults of the catacombs and on sarcophagi.

We may, therefore, consider that the Good Shepherd depictions in Roman catacombs may well be interpreted as both Christian and pagan. However, the Good Shepherd image in funerary art of this period usually forms part of a set of images that together convey the Christian ideal more clearly. In the fresco groups found in cubicula or crypts of the catacombs, Old Testament narratives such as the biblical stories of Jonah, Noah, and Daniel make themes of death, redemption, and resurrection more manifest. New Testament narratives are also very popular and mainly concern the fulfilment of the prophecy of deliverance by the birth of Christ and resurrection through the story of Lazarus.

Scriptural texts that profess the analogy of Christ to the shepherd also support the imagery of the Good Shepherd, connecting the mural’s theme to Christianity. In John 10:1-19 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Luke 15:3-7 recounts the parable of the lost sheep. References to the shepherd can also be drawn from the Old Testament, for example, in Psalms 23, where the presence of the shepherd Jesus eases deliverance to the next world. More importantly, the writings of the early fathers of the Christian movement at this time make specific references to the connection of the Good Shepherd with Christian beliefs. Hermas’s writings, for example, describe his vision of the Good Shepherd as a means of explaining repentance to Christians.

 The popular theme of the Good Shepherd during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries expresses the spiritual identity of the budding Christian community. The iconography of the catacombs shows essential elements that were necessary for the spreading of new ideas and the understanding of new principles. While it reflected an adaptation of old classical forms, this iconography absorbed the stylistic influences of the East to compete with other emerging spiritual movements of the time. The turbulent historical background afflicting the Roman Empire with frequent invasions from the North and insurrections in the East resulted in an unstable environment that set the scene for artworks promoting the exigencies of society in the current circumstances. Once the new Christian faith gained imperial recognition with the signing of the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine in 313 CE, the Good Shepherd image lost its place as Christian iconography`s principal subject matter. The elevated social position of Christianity at this time called for an alternative dogmatic representation of the newfound faith, and the Good Shepherd’s image of compassion and mercy was no longer a priority of canonical discussion.


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