“The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher’s travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life. The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me …” (Ps 23 :1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me”, so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Ps 23 :4)—this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers.” – Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 6.
This sarcophagus is found in the Vatican Museum.
4 thoughts on “Christ the Shepherd and Philosopher”
thank you so much for the pix of the sarcophagus,
twice i’ve been to the vatican museums trying to find which one was it
now i know, how did you identify it?
pace e bene
I have to admit that I dug it up some place on the web… Not copyrighted of course (I think, I hope)! I read the encyclical and wanted to see the corresponding image, but, unfortunately, I can’t just pop into the Vatican whenever I want.
Did you ever find the actual image to which Spe Salvi refers? That is the actual image BXVI refers to when talking about Jesus Christ as the true philosopher?
I think so, but I’m not 100% sure… Spe Salvi refers to a staff in one hand and the gospel in another. The photo here has the staff and a sheep. I haven’t been able to find photos of sufficiently high resolution to link them definitively with Spe Salvi. Though, as far as I’m concerned, this image illustrates the general point.