Good Shepherd Sunday is the popular name for the 4th Sunday of Easter because the Gospel passage is always taken from a part of Chapter 10 of St John, which is on the theme of Christ as the Good Shepherd who cares for us. The reading for year C is the passage about Jesus’ followers being the sheep who listen to the voice of the Good shepherd, who will have eternal life and never be lost.
In the early church there were no paintings of the Crucifixion. Most Christian art was funerary, and what remains was largely of Old Testament scenes, which expressed God’s saving action in overcoming persecution and death, such as Daniel in the Lions’ Den,(Daniel 6:1-29) and the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3:24-90)
The first portraits of Christ are from the fourth century and can be seen as the fruit of three centuries of contemplation. (There are parallels with the development of the image of Gotama Siddharta, the Buddha, who for several centuries was represented by his footprint and other symbols, until the 2nd century AD when his image was visualised in stone.) However, there are images from the 3rd and 4th century which represent Christ in symbolic form and which draw on pagan models, such as Helios, and Orpheus and most of all Hermes Kriophorous. The latter is the model for images of the Good Shepherd, as Christ described himself in John 10, in parables,(Matthew 18:12-14) and can be inferred from his words to Peter after the Resurrection (John 21). The Good Shepherd is found in a number of catacombs, in many wall paintings such as the above one from the Catacomb of St Priscilla and on sarcophagi and in free standing sculpture such as the 3/4th c. Sassanian example in the British Museum excavated in Iraq. The above image shows Christ with two sheep, one either side, and one on his shoulder, two trees and birds facing, probably symbols of paradise. In the context of the catacomb, the place where the faithful were laid to rest, it is not surprising that the image of the Good Shepherd is often found- over 400 examples have been recorded. Christi is the one who keeps us safe and will bring us to everlasting life.
Professor Monica Bowen, of Alberti’s Window blog recently wrote a post with an excellent summary of an article by Boniface Ramsey ‘A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art’ Harvard Theological Review (76. No.3 July 83. 375-378), about this image in early Christian art and why it disappeared. Briefly, four reasons are suggested: The heresy Arianism, which sought to undermine his divinity and led to his majesty being emphasised in orthodoxy; the shepherd was replaced by Christ as teacher because that was an image of authority to convey increased complexity of faith and dogma; the shepherd had been more appropriate to a time of persecution and lastly, leaders in the church might have sought a more authoritative image in the post-Constantinian church than the humble shepherd.
Maybe the image was overshadowed, more than anything, as the church developed. It seems a powerful image, in the midst of so many competing voices and influences today, of Christ’s care and love for the flock and his promise to bring us to eternal life.