One of the oldest and most favored subjects of early Christian art is the Good Shepherd. It appears among the paintings of the catacombs of Rome, Naples, Sardinia, and Sicily and on sarcophagi of the East and West. However, it is by no means limited to the sepulchral field. As early as 210, Tertullian (De pud. 7.1; 10.12) spoke of chalices decorated with the picture of the Good Shepherd, and the number of lamps showing the same is considerable. It is found on ancient rings and gems, on glasses, and on medals. Among the remains of early Christian sculpture, statuettes of the Good Shepherd are the most beautiful pieces, such as the famous marble statuette now in the Lateran Museum in Rome. The picture of the Good Shepherd appeared at an early time among the paintings of liturgical buildings. Thus the frescoes of the baptismal chapel on the rear wall above the font at dura-europos (Before 256) depict the Good Shepherd standing behind his flock, carrying a huge ram. About a century and a half later, four mosaics decorating the interior of the baptistery of S. Giovanni in Fonte (Naples) are representations of the Good Shepherd.
Though the picture of the Good Shepherd carrying the lamb on his shoulders is the most frequent type, He is depicted from the beginning in a great variety of scenes. The paintings of the catacombs display the Good Shepherd usually as a young and beardless man wearing a tunic, a shoulder cape, and high stockings—sometimes seated among his flock, sometimes with the shepherd's flute, sometimes protecting his lambs from aggression, and sometimes carrying a milk pail. But the favorite picture is that of the Good Shepherd with the animal on his shoulders. This figure has a long pre-Christian tradition. In early Christian art the Good Shepherd illustrates the Gospel parable of the lost sheep carried back to the fold (Lk 15.3–7; Jn 10.1–18) in a time-honored type.
Archeologists have drawn attention to many surviving statuettes of Hermes Criophoros, the protector of flocks, who carried a ram on his shoulders; and the representation of this subject is found not only in Greco-Roman times, but much earlier. In Syria and Assyria, reliefs have been discovered from the 8th and 10th centuries b.c. that portray a man bearing a gazelle on his shoulders. These older figures represent worshipers bringing animals for sacrifice. At least by the time of the ram-bearing Hermes of Greece, and perhaps even earlier, the thought of the Good Shepherd was introduced as a symbol of philanthropia, the great civil virtue. This explains the appearance of the figure of a good shepherd on pagan sarcophagi. In Christian art the type was conceived anew and filled with Christian meaning. The good shepherd became Christ Himself, especially as the Savior of the soul and of mankind.
Bibliography: j. quasten, Heilige Überlieferung: Festschrift Ildefons Herwegen, ed. o. casel (Münster 1938) 51–58, Logos theology; Pisciculi: Festschift Franz Joseph Dölger (AntChr Suppl 1;1939) 220–244, baptismal liturgy; "The Waters of Refreshment," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 1 (1939) 325–332; Miscellanea Giovani Mercati, 6 v. (Rome 1946) 1:373–406, Liturgy of the Dead; Mediaeval Studies 9 (1947) 1–18, Dura–Europos. a. parrot, Mélanges Syriens offerts à R. Dussaud, v.1 (Paris 1939) 171–182. p. bruun, Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae 1.2 (1963) 146–149.