Christ as Orpheus (4th cent.)


Though not nearly as common as the Good Shepherd motif, Christ also appears in early Christian art in the form of the Greek god Orpheus. This fresco of Christ as Orpheus is in the Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, and dates from the 4th century. Another example of Christ as Orpheus is in the Catacomb of Domitilla.

In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the son of Apollo and a muse. He was a musician from Thrace who played the lyre and sang so beautifully that the wild animals were tamed and the rivers stopped to listen.

When Orpheus' wife, Eurydice, was killed by the bite of a serpent, he went down to the underworld to bring her back. His songs were so beautiful that Hades finally agreed to allow Eurydice to return to the world of the living. Orpheus was attacked and killed by the Maenads (female followers of Dionysus), who tore him to pieces. His head floated down the river, still singing, and came to rest on the isle of Lesbos.

Orpheus' ability to tame wild animals with his song, his heroic journey to the underworld, and his violent death all would have reminded early Christians of Jesus. Clement of Alexandria wrote that Christ, unlike Orpheus, tames even the wildest of beasts: the human being. And Umberto Utro, head of the Vatican Museum's department of early Christian art, recently explained, "Just as Orpheus tamed wild beasts with his music, his image became the image of Christ who, with his words, transformed the lives of sinners. (2)

Sources

  1. "Orpheus." Encyclopedia Mythica.
  2. "Vatican hopes crowds visit sarcophagi museum" - Catholic News Service, Oct. 3, 2005
  3. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 162-64.
  4. W.F. Volbach, Early Christian Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1961), 310.

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