The Good Shepherd in Early Christianity

A conversation with Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of Christ as the Good Shepherd, 300–350 C.E., marble, 39 inches high (Museo Pio Cristiano, Vatican Museums, Rome)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:09] We’re in the part of the Vatican Museums that is devoted to early Christian art. We’ve walked by sarcophagi, the covers of tombs from the catacombs, and we’ve come upon a rare example of early Christian sculpture.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:18] Early Christian freestanding sculpture, that is. Everything that we’ve been looking at, pretty much, is relief sculpture. Of course, ancient Rome was known for its large freestanding sculptures, but they were associated for Christians with images of gods and emperors, and so not something the first Christians wanted to emulate. There was also the association of worshiping images in the Roman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] This is a marble sculpture, maybe three and a half feet tall, of the Good Shepherd.

Dr. Harris: [0:49] The Good Shepherd is a subject that goes back to ancient Greece. There are images of figures carrying sheep or goats on their shoulders to make a sacrifice to the gods. It continues through ancient Roman art, and then even here into early Christian art; the meanings change as the images move through time.

Dr. Zucker: [1:08] This is a period of flux when older traditions are being recast into a new Christian context. Some scholars have noted that the old tradition of Hermes was a perfect figure to readopt. In fact, if we look at this figure, he does have some very classicizing elements. For instance, he stands in contrapposto.

[1:26] His left leg is bent, his weight is entirely on his right leg, his right hip juts up. And the handling of the carving of the folds of his clothing remind us of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. We often think about early Christian art as poorly proportioned, as poorly carved, but this example shows that those were purposeful decisions. When artists wanted to represent the figure naturalistically, they could.

[1:52] You have a very sensitive representation of the fall of the cloth. There’s a lovely handling of the curly locks on Christ’s head or of the sheep’s wool. I love the way that the artist has created a point where the Good Shepherd’s curly hair meets with the hair of the sheep.

[2:08] There’s this is wonderful intimacy between the two figures. I also love how the belly of this sheep bulges out just behind his neck a little bit. There’s a real sense of the mass of the animal.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] And of a shepherd who really is caring for this vulnerable animal, carrying him on his shoulders. If we look at his back, we can see it’s fully carved, and there’s a lovely twist in his hips that you can see in the drapery that pulls around toward his left leg, which moves forward.

[2:36] The figure is asymmetrical. He not only stands in contrapposto, but he turns his head to his left and he gazes out into the distance in a very tranquil way that suggests a perfect life in the countryside. As we walked through the museum, we saw so many images of the Good Shepherd. It’s a very common motif in late antique sarcophagi and relief sculptures.

[3:00] It’s usually part of a bucolic, idyllic, rural scene that meant, on a sarcophagus, the idea of a peaceful afterlife, an ideal afterlife. But this is now a Christian subject that, for believers in the 4th century, this first century when Christianity is legal to practice in the Roman Empire, the idea that Christ would care for them. That Christ was their shepherd, that death was not final for Christians, but a step to another world, a better world.

[3:34] This is before the portrait image of Christ that we’re more familiar with, with Christ as older and wiser, with a beard, has formed. Even just slightly later in early Christian art, we see images of Christ as very youthful, as a shepherd, where the sheep are representative of an extended Christian community.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] That Christ looks after as a shepherd looks after his flock. He also herds them towards heaven.

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Jennifer Awes Freeman, The Good Shepherd: Image, Meaning, and Power (Baylor University Press, 2022)

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Good Shepherd in Early Christianity," in Smarthistory, July 29, 2020, accessed June 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/the-good-shepherd-in-early-christianity/.