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The Shepherd in Early Christian Art

Branko Jozić ; Marulianum Split

Puni tekst: hrvatski pdf 482 Kb

str. 475-487

preuzimanja: 237


Puni tekst: engleski pdf 482 Kb

str. 475-487

preuzimanja: 81



The gradual development of Early Christian art started only from the 3rd century. Before that, there had been no visual expression, because of the fears of idolatry, the awareness that divine reality could not be expressed materially and because of the unambiguous prohibitions of the Old Testament (»You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below«, Exodus 20, 4; Deuteronomy 5, 8-9) In this view there were no compromises, as shown by the writings of the Early Christian apologetic writers, following up on the admonitions of the prophets (for example, Isaiah 44, 9 ff,), and mocking deities and depictions of them. In time the stance of Christians to visual depiction changed radically, but it was a long lasting process, full of tensions and internecine struggles. The foundation for a different approach was consciousness of the mission to extend to other nations the message of salvation, which had to be transformed into their language, i.e., into their mental categories and their means of expression. In addition there was an awareness of the importance of images as didactic aids, for they were effective vehicles of the message, particularly for the illiterate. They were used by the preachers of the Manichaean religion that was in the 3rd century surging westwards, making itself a powerful rival of Christianity. In addition the change in the Christian attitude to visual expression was abetted by the new conditions that arose during the reign of the Emperor Constantine.
In the interpretation of Early Christian depictions until a very short time ago it was on the whole the Biblical and soteriological correspondences were stressed, less so those with the existing patterns of the pagan traditions, among which was the shepherd motif. In a genre scene, in an allegory of fortune and peace in an idyllic pastoral setting, he was a reminder of the Golden Age as well as a metaphor of the guardian. In this light the perceived mythical persons presented in the figure of the shepherd (Aristaeus, Endymion, Hermes kriophoros / moschophoros). In this case the pagan and Christian imaginaries were compatible; the connotations of the figure of the shepherd (pietas, philanthropia, sleep / death, rebirth / eternity, the idyll of the imagined Gold Age) could all be interpreted in the Christian key signature. The Christians simply correlated the features of the shepherd of the pagan and the OT traditions with Christ; he was the manifestation of God’s goodness and love of man (philanthropia) (Titus 3, 4); he made the perfect sacrifice (pietas) (Hebrews 7, 27); at the end, in the role of the shepherd he will establish justice and »like a shepherd separate the sheep from the goats« (Matthew 25, 32) and ensure them eternal blessings (pyschopompos). In the figure of Christ the Shepherd, then, one should see not only the Good Shepherd of the parable seeking the lost and tenting the wounded sheep (John 10, 11; Luke 15, 4-7). It has in addition connotations with the divine herald, once Hermes, bringer of knowledge, discloser of truth and wisdom. In the words of Clement of Alexandria, he, the Logos of the father, was a loving shepherdof children, a teacher who leads us children to salvation; he was also the only lawgiver. In fact the artistic legacy of the ancient period shows, among other things, that the idea that there was a more or less open and no-quarters battle between pagan and Christian in Roman society is not entirely correct. Rather it was a matter of coexistence and permeation, in a process of slow and complex changes.
In this coexistence some motifs of the pagan repertoire, those that could be made compliant with the texts of the scriptures, served Christian art for the making of scenes loaded with symbolic meaning. The symbolic elements of the shepherd from the pagan imaginary were integrated into the scenes of Christian art much loved by popular piety. Summed up in the figure of the shepherd were common human existential issues, the longing for knowledge, security and salvation. For all this, Christians found an answer in Christ the Good Shepherd, one of the most frequent motifs of Early Christian art.

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