The Lutheran church in which I grew up and the Episcopal church I attend now have a number of things in common. They both were constructed during the Gothic revival in the late 1800’s; both have good organs and organists; and both bear prominent images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A large mural depicting Christ holding a lamb in one arm and leading a flock of sheep (photo 1) flanks one side of the chancel at St. Martini Lutheran Church.
The stained glass window in the chancel at Trinity Episcopal similarly shows Christ cradling a lamb with his right arm as he reaches down with his left hand to touch the head of an accompanying sheep in a reassuring gesture (photo 2). Both images draw on the work of an obscure German graphic artist and painter named Bernard Plockhorst who lived from 1825 to 1907. Indeed, many congregations in North America owe a debt of thanks to Plockhorst for the impetus his famous painting, “The Lord is My Good Shepherd,” gave to the artists who designed the stained glass in their churches (photo 3).
On this Good Shepherd Sunday when some Christian denominations shift the emphasis in their post-Easter liturgies from Christ as a metaphorical sacrificial lamb to Jesus as a shepherd who stands by his flock, I’ll share some photos of good shepherd windows in the United States and Canada, two countries where they are fairly common. All the windows visualize, in different styles and varying degrees of detail, readings heard in churches today from the gospel of John, chapter 10, where Jesus declares “I am the good shepherd,” and Psalm 23 where the psalmist observes, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” After a short introduction to the history of the good shepherd image, we’ll look at the photos as illustrations of John’s gospel passage and the famous psalm attributed to David who, as both shepherd and king, prefigured Christ according to Christian tradition (photo 4).
Background I was mildly surprised as I culled through my photos of stained glass windows, to see how broadly the image of a shepherd as a symbol for a loving and steadfast God cuts across denominational lines. One finds good shepherd windows in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and other Protestant churches alike. Why is it so common? One reason could be that representations of the good shepherd belong to a common artistic heritage. The image dates to the earliest days of Christianity. Eduard Syndicus wrote in Early Christian Art that “the figure of the Good Shepherd was easily the most popular symbol of salvation” among second century Christians. It expressed concretely their sense of being “in distress yet not abandoned.” A good shepherd fresco with Jesus holding a lamb on his shoulders appears at the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome, and similar images appear in early baptisteries. The image spread to other parts of the Roman world. Walter Lowrie reports in Art in the Early Christian Church that some Christian communities in North Africa used glasses “adorned in gold leaf with the figure of the Good Shepherd.”
The good shepherd seems to have lost some of its popularity during the Middle Ages as the emphasis in Christian art shifted to other themes such as the theology of redemption, the life and miracles of Mary, and the lives of the saints. But the image has come back with a vengeance since Plockhorst’s good shepherd painting began to circulate. I’m posting examples below, organized by denomination. Enjoy!
Disciples of Christ
United Church of Canada
Text and Photos Copyright 2018, by Michael Klug; firstname.lastname@example.org; 04/22/18