Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Good Shepherd in Early Christian Art (p. 2): The Roman Catacombs

The Good Shepherd; Catacomb of Callixtus/Callisto

Catacombs are underground cemeteries that contain numerous tombs, often consisting of intricate and sometimes extensive networks of burial chambers. Such subterranean burial places were used by Jews, Christians, and others in the ancient world, and they can be found in many areas of the Mediterranean. The most famous, extensive, and impressive catacombs are the 40-60 (the ways to count them vary) Christian catacombs that have been discovered around Rome. Many catacombs are found on the major arteries out of Rome, such as along the Appian Way (e.g., the Callisto/Callixtus catacomb) or the road to Ostia, Rome’s port at the mouth of the Tiber River (e.g., the Domitilla catacomb).
The Christian catacombs in Rome include many of the earliest Christian works of art, well-preserved in the subterranean chambers, and they give us much information about early Christianity and the genesis of Christian art. Initially, since there was no “Christian art,” Christians utilized icons or styles commonly used in the Greco-Roman world. Clement of Alexandria, for example, approves of the following images for the use on Christian seals: a dove, fish, ship, musical lyre, or a ship’s anchor. Clement disapproves of the use of the faces of idols, sword or bow (since Christians “followed peace”), or drinking-cups (The Instructor 3.11). Besides being an image of the apostles as “fishers of human beings” (e.g., Mark 1:17), the fish (Greek ichthus) became for Christians an acronym for Jesus (in Greek: Jesus, Christ, God’s Son, Savior), and, as reflected in statements by Clement and Tertullian, was also a symbol of baptism. The cross-shaped anchor came to symbolize hope (cf. Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul”).   

Some additional background before talking more about the Good Shepherd image in the catacombs: One of the earliest Christian uses of the Good Shepherd appears to be an early third-century oil lamp with the images of the Good Shepherd, Noah’s ark, and Jonah on it (currently found in the Skulpturensammlungund Museum für Byzantinische Kunst der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin). The image of the Good Shepherd dominates the circular image that is stamped between the handle on one side and the spout of this reddish, clay lamp. The shepherd is a young man in a short tunic who faces the viewer with the sheep over his shoulders. A small flock of seven sheep surrounds him on the bottom half of the plate, and the sun, moon, and seven stars are above him. There are additional figures on the left side of the image, such as the dove on top of Noah’s ark (the ark here symbolized by a small box; see Genesis 8:6-12) and Jonah having been “vomited out” of the large fish (see Jonah 1-2). Both stories speak of God’s preservation of humans from destruction in difficult times, but Jonah’s three days in the belly of the large fish specifically came to symbolize the “three days” of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. On the right side of the image Jonah is found sleeping under a set of gourds (see Jonah 4; both images of Jonah are found in numerous places in the catacombs as well). The use of the Good Shepherd image in conjunction with the images form the Hebrew Bible—including their Christian symbolism—makes it clear that this lamp was made specifically for/by Christians (Spier 2007: 172; this work contains a photo of an engraving of the oil lamp that makes it much easier to see the images). 

The image of the Good Shepherd is found approximately 120 times in the Roman catacombs, and it is especially common in the older ones. The Good Shepherd image at the top if this post is found in the Callisto catacomb, the earliest Christian catacomb in Rome (early third century). Although it initially was a burial place for the Christians in the lower economic strata in Rome, it also came to be the burial place for many third-century popes (Sixtus II was even killed on August 6, 258, in this catacomb during a persecution of Valerian, which led to the erroneous idea that Christians typically hid in catacombs from persecutions; see Rutgers 2000: 122). 

The Domitilla catacomb contains over nine miles of subterranean passages, and it is especially famous for its wall paintings, some of which date back to the third century. A wall painting of the Good Shepherd that dates from the late fourth century is painted on an apse in the cubiculum (i.e., a large room) of the Pistores in this catacomb. This image dates from 350-75 CE.

The Good Shepherd, The Catacomb of Domitilla

The Good Shepherd stands in a garden, with one sheep over his shoulders, and four sheep around him. Two sheep are on his left, and two are on his right. The closest two sheep look up at him, but the two out sheep are turned away from him and peacefully graze on the grass in front of them. Even further away on each side are two predatory animals (lions?) from which the Good Shepherd loving protects his sheep. Another Good Shepherd image is found on the vault of the cubiculum of the Good Shepherd in the same catacomb, an image that stems from the third century (Schnell and Steiner 2009: 90).


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