Good Shepherd by Unknown artist [Syria]

Unknown artist [Syria]

Good Shepherd, 3rd–4th century, Marble, 61 x 39.5 x 16.5 cm (sculpture only); 74.5 x 35 x 25 cm (sculpture with stone base), The British Museum, London; Donated by Lt-Col Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, 1919,1213.1, © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

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‘Tend the Flock’

Commentary by

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.