Lambs, Sheep, and Shepherds
SYMBOLS OF CHRIST AND CHRISTIANS
CHRIST AS THE LAMB OF GOD
When John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching he said, "Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Christian art has emphasized the symbolism by which Christ is the lamb sacrificed for the salvation of all, and has related it to Old Testament sacrifices such as Abel's lamb (as in the first picture at right) and the lamb of Passover (example).
Early Christian art used lambs as a substitute for portraying Christ as a human being. Thus in the vault of the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč (shown above), tondos of the saints rise toward the apex, where Christ reigns as a lamb. When the lamb stands in for the person of Christ it will usually have a halo featuring a chi-rho, or the chi-rho may be placed above the lamb. Like the Poreč lamb, some will be seen standing on a hill or rise. From the hill many images show the four rivers of Paradise flowing (example). For Isidore of Seville the rivers represent "the eternal flow of joy." Later exegetes saw in them the four virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.1 In the first millenium it is common to see the lamb standing with a cross behind it (example). In one case that I have seen, a stone fragment from a baptistery, the lamb is actually carrying the cross on its shoulder.
In later Christian art, which had lost the sense that portraying the Deity might be problematic, lambs were still used with some frequency to represent the person of Jesus Christ. Thus the lamb to which John the Baptist points in portraits of that saint may have a cruciform halo (example). Another example is the lambs in the secondary tympana at the cathedral in Zadar, Croatia.
The lamb is also used to represent Christ in images based on passages from the Book of Revelation such as the lamb among the four beasts and the wedding feast of the lamb.
LAMBS AS CHRIST'S PEOPLE
The Faithful Departed
In the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (second picture at right) Christ is represented in human form and it is his faithful departed who are represented as lambs or sheep, as they are also in this capital. This symbolism arises from several of Jesus' sayings – for example, "I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me" (John 10:14). But it also implies a sharing in the sacrifice of Christ: for example, in this sarcophagus relief, where the lambs represent the faithful coming to Christ bearing their own crosses, reflecting Jesus' insistence that to be a disciple one must "take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24).
The imagery of the faithful departed as lambs or sheep plays out in countless sarcophagi where lambs converge on Christ (example) or find their sustenance in the fruits of Paradise (example) or even graze on a symbol of the person of Christ (example).
When there are twelve lambs converging on Christ or a symbol of him, they most likely represent the twelve Apostles, as in the third picture at right or this mosaic above the apse at San Vitale, Ravenna.
The Martyrs and the Spiritually Vulnerable
Lambs in the clutch of lions are sometimes seen at church entrances (example). A number of tourist-oriented sites on the internet refer to them as "guarding" the entrance, but they represent not so much guards as would-be obstacles. Entrances of this kind are typically conceived as representing the physical and spiritual perils of the world outside the Church, following exegetical texts such as the Glossa on Psalm 9:30 (10:9), "like a lion in his den he lieth in ambush that he may catch the poor man," which says the enemy has "both physical power and deceitfulness…the one in the violence by which he tortures the martyrs and the other in the fraudulence of heretics and false brothers."2 The church within represents Heaven and salvation, but the doorway lions serve as an admonition that passage from this world is fraught with moral and physical danger.
The Newly Baptized
Martyrdom can be pictured as a baptism, as in the death of St. Catherine's fifty philosophers in a fresco at Montmorillon in France. Conversely, in actual baptism Christians "die" with Christ "that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4)." Thus images of lambs are repeated across the 4th-century mosaic floor of the cathedral baptistery at Aquileia. Clearly representing candidates for baptism, they are each enclosed by an eight-sided border that echoes the traditionally eight-sided baptismal font. The only other representational images on the floor are baskets of fruit, recalling the function of baptism expressed in Romans 7:4, "Therefore, my brethren, you also are become dead to the law, by the body of Christ; that you may belong to another, who is risen again from the dead, that we may bring forth fruit to God."
CHRIST AS SHEPHERD
Long before Christianity, Greek art portrayed Hermes as a kriophoros or "ram bearer." Early Christian art used the kriophoros to symbolize Christ as the Good Shepherd who retrieves his sheep in Matthew 18:12-14. Some of the early images also reference Orpheus, who like Christ went into the underworld on a mission of salvation. In classical iconography Orpheus wears a Phrygian cap and holds a harp and plectrum while birds arrive in the trees and various animals congregate to hear him play (example). One such image appears on a ceiling in the Christian catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, apparently as a symbol of Christ as Savior. Other early images overlay elements of Orpheus iconography onto Good Shepherd portraits, presenting Christ among animals and birds, but with a sheep on his shoulders instead of a Phrygian cap on his head (example). In the Good Shepherd mosaic in the Aquileia Basilica he has a pan flute instead of a harp.
After the paleo-Christian period, the references to Orpheus disappear but Good Shepherd portraits continue to place a sheep on Christ's shoulders right into the modern age (example).
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-07-27.
MORE IMAGES: CHRIST AS LAMB