This third-century sculpture shares the imagery of 1 Peter 5:2, which reminds the elders of the Church to ‘tend the flock’. Such labour was no pastoral idyll; it could be back-breaking and dangerous. Although the stone’s natural reddish-orange veining adds life to the sculpture, it also—perhaps by coincidence rather than design—makes it seem stained, as though with sweat or even blood.
The shepherd is strong, however—carrying the weight of the large sheep with practised ease; the naturalistic folds of his tunic falling evenly. There is a peaceful familiarity between shepherd and sheep. The sheep sits securely on the shepherd’s shoulders, feeling the anchor of his hand, with no need to struggle against it.
Heavily worn over the centuries, the carving now seems to run shepherd and sheep into each other: it is hard to tell where the shepherd’s hair ends and the sheep’s coat begins. The appearance of symbiosis and interdependence between the two has been deepened by the blurring of time. Without the sheep, there is no employment for the shepherd, just as without the shepherd there is no nourishment and safety for the sheep. 1 Peter 5 is speaking to shepherds, not sheep, but the image reminds the elders of their own sense of purpose and their own need of the flock they have been called to tend.
The carved face of the shepherd is attractive, with large eyes and a benevolent expression. The sculpture was later refashioned as a fountain, and the opening made to channel water through the shepherd’s mouth now makes it appear that he is singing—as a shepherd might (perhaps to give reassurance to the sheep he is carrying, or perhaps to call the rest of the flock). The utilitarian alteration has, touchingly, emphasized a theological point: this is an image of the Good Shepherd, whose sheep know his voice (John 10:27).
While 1 Peter 5 calls Christian shepherds to care for their sheep, it reminds them that the shepherds are themselves also the flock. In this sculpture, the bishop is both sheep and shepherd. There is a ‘chief shepherd’ (v.4), who cares for the carers. They are carried by Christ, as they carry others; they risk all for the flock because all was risked for them.
5So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed. 2Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, 3not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd is manifested you will obtain the unfading crown of glory. 5Likewise you that are younger be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
6 Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you. 7Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. 8Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. 9Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. 10And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you. 11To him be the dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
12 By Silvaʹnus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it. 13She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. 14Greet one another with the kiss of love.
Peace to all of you that are in Christ.