Have you seen Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa recreated from Lego blocks? Or Edvard Munch’s The Scream, arranged on a piece of toast? It’s fun to take famous images and give them a modern twist. It breathes new life into old favorites. Sometimes the new versions go viral.
Case in point: recently, people have been swooning over photos of Pope Francis carrying a lamb on his shoulders (here). It’s a 21st-century version of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a leader tenderly caring for his flock. The image harkens back to the earliest days of Christianity and offers a refresher course in teachings that many Christians still hold central today: concern for the lowly, care for the downtrodden.
Early Christians valued these teachings, too.
Across the excavated cities of the Roman world, the Good Shepherd is one of the earliest examples of Christian art. Archaeologists have found examples in sculpture (this statuette is currently Cleveland) and in paintings (this version from an early Christian baptistry was excavated in Syria; it’s now been reconstructed at Yale. You can take an excellent virtual tour of the original site.)
Clearly this image went viral once before — only not when you might think.
The first known example of the Good Shepherd dates two hundred years after Jesus’ death. That’s quite a time lag between, say, the moment when Christians first spoke about Jesus as the Good Shepherd (John’s gospel, written in late first or early second century C.E.) and the time when archaeologists start finding representations of them (the middle to late third century). What took them so long?
Many people will suspect that early Christians couldn’t afford to make or buy anything like fine art, yet not all Christians were poor and downtrodden. They clearly had the means to leave traces of themselves behind. They also had a keen sense of timing and strategy. You could say, their decision to pick the Good Shepherd for their “coming out” moment was inspired.
Statues of men carrying animals on their shoulders (a ram, for example, or a calf) had been a part of Greek repertoire since the sixth century B.C.E. By Roman times, if not before, these statues had taken on a meaning of their own. According to one writer, Dio Chrysostom, good leaders were like good shepherds. They guarded their people from wild beasts. They cared for the health and safety of those they ruled.
The Greek word for this ancient idea is philanthrophia, love of humankind or “good will toward all.” It was a central value of Greek and Roman ethical behavior, and it was personified in the ancient image of a good shepherd.
Christians today may see the image of the Good Shepherd in terms that make sense to them — drawn from the details of their own scripture, their own history. But Christians of the past who saw these images saw something different. What they saw was a reminder: to find common ground with the world they lived in.
What a refreshingly modern idea.