Icon of the Good Shepherd

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd layeth down his life for the sheep. John 10:11

Neo-Coptic icon of the Good Shepherd, egg tempera on gesso

A Coptic Orthodox friend requested an icon of the Good Shepherd recently. I had already painted one many years ago for a Roman Catholic church of the Good Shepherd in Oxfordshire and I was glad for the opportunity to revisit the subject from an Orthodox perspective.

The Good Shepherd seems to have become a dominant theme in Coptic iconography over the last few years. It is found in several important new Coptic sites, most notably on the exterior façade of St Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo. By virtue of this new ubiquity it would appear that the subject, in a particular form, has now been canonised into the contemporary Coptic iconographic repertoire. To my knowledge, it is not a traditional Coptic subject and I have never come across it in my own research into historic Coptic iconography. Even in the contemporary era, Isaac Fanous only painted it once or twice in 50 years at most. Therefore I thought it would be useful to take a quick look at the image, its origins and symbolism.

The theme of the shepherd carrying a lamb/sheep/ram was already current in pre-Christian times. It was actually one of the epithets of Hermes, as Hermes “kriophoros” meaning ram-bearer or ram carrier. The ram of course, is a reference to the Theban deity Amon and to the astrological sign/aeon of Aries the ram. The Old Testament is replete with Ram/sheep/shepherd related symbolism, one of which is King David, the Shepherd King. Some of the earliest Christian images of the Good Shepherd are found in the Roman catacombs and depict a youth carrying a lamb/ram/sheep on his shoulders, alone or walking among his flock. The style of iconography is classical and because of this fact, it is not readily recognisable as Christian. It is therefore ambiguous, perhaps purposefully so, for fear of persecution by the Roman authorities. The question arises in the viewer’s mind: ” Is this the figure of Apollo or Hermes, or some other Roman deity? We can therefore surmise that only converts knew that the true identity of the figure was Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.

There are two main ways of depicting the Good Shepherd image, one is the Roman (and now Coptic) way, the other is Byzantine Orthodox.

The Roman/Coptic model sets the scene in a pastoral landscape, with a stream or river, trees, flowers etc… Christ holds a lamb in his arm and is surrounded by a docile flock peacefully grazing. This model is obviously based on the frescos in the Roman catacombs, with copious addition of the realism and sugary sentimentality usually associated with Roman art… The symbolism is weak, surface deep, whether done in the Roman or Coptic style. Furthermore, it only addresses the first part of St John’s verse “I am the Good Shepherd”, leaving out the most important second part “…layeth down his life for his sheep”. The image as presented today in the Coptic Church is based directly on this Roman model (see previous post on Roman art vs Orthodox iconography where the issues are discussed in more details)

The other and, in my humble opinion, truly canonical way of depicting the subject is found in the Byzantine tradition. As in Egypt, the Good Shepherd was never a historically prominent theme in Greece or Russia, but whenever it is used, its symbolism is very potent, weighty in visual theology and mystical undertones. Firstly and chiefly, the cross is added to the composition. The addition of the cross placed behind the Saviour, changes everything in terms of meaning and firmly places the image in the eucharistic context. He carries the “lamb without blemish”on His shoulders, placed at the centre of the cross, as if hanging from it. Here the lamb becomes a symbol of the sacrificial aspect of Christ, as He Himself is the lamb that lays down His life so that many should live. To further anchor this point, Christ bears the wounds of His passion in His hands. In this icon, He is seen simultaneously as the Good Shepherd and the sacrificial lamb. The symbolic content in this composition adequately addresses both parts of the verse in John’s Gospel, i.e. the Good Shepherd as well as His sacrificial aspect, without any sentimental drivel whatsoever.

Greek Orthodox icon of the Good Shepherd

Since there are neither historic nor Fanoussian Coptic prototypes of the image of the Good Shepherd, I chose to follow the Byzantine type simply because it is Orthodox and theologically correct and encrypted with profound symbolism. The Latin model on the other hand, while making a pretty bucolic picture, is otherwise shallow, mostly form without content.


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