Shepherd and Symbolism

I spoke to my mother in Barcelona this morning, on the eve of her return flight to the U.S., and she expressed her concern about her travel plans given that a new cloud of volcanic ash appears to be headed out from Iceland. Fortunately the Iberian Peninsula has, so far, been spared direct fallout from the intimidatingly, Tolkien-worthy named volcano Eyjafjallajokull. While one may not be able to get from Barcelona to, say, St. Petersburg by air at present, I assured her that flying to Philadelphia tomorrow morning will likely not pose a problem.

European volcano eruptions tend to put us – well, The Courtier at least – in mind of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The story of what happened there in 79 A.D. has been treated by historians, as well as documentary and dramatic filmmakers, since the area was first seriously explored by archaeologists, particularly beginning in the 1760’s. It is no accident that the Neoclassical style of art, architecture and design began to soar in popularity at the same time, in reaction to the Baroque and Rococo which preceded it, as reports and studies of the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum began to be widely disseminated.

What many do not realize however, is that these two towns were not the only important sites destroyed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The resort town of Stabiae was also wiped out by over six feet of falling ash from the volcano. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder was killed here while trying to save victims of the volcano, as his nephew Pliny the Younger describes:

Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense, fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th – two days after the last day he had been seen – his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.

At the time of Pliny the Elder, Stabiae was known as a small resort town, with luxurious villas of wealthy retirees spread out along the coastline like some sort of Roman Boca Raton. One of the most interesting finds in the excavations at Stabiae took place in a structure now referred to as the Villa del Pastore or “Villa of the Shepherd”. Archaeologists are not exactly sure what the building was, and some parts of it still need to explored, but speculation is that it may have served as some type of health spa. During excavations inside the building during the 18th century, the statue of an elderly shepherd was found (reproduced below), which led to the naming of this building after the find.

The form of the statue from Stabiae should, in theory, be familiar to many Christians, for it is clearly a sort of prototype related to some of the earliest Christian art which portrayed Jesus as The Good Shepherd. The pose is almost identical to that of this famous piece, for example, now in the Vatican Museums but several centuries younger – both, it should be pointed out, in its depiction of a young man, and in the date of creation. In the earlier centuries of Christianity, this was a common way to depict Jesus in painting and sculpture, though as Christian iconography developed this form was later abandoned in favor of a bearded, more Jewish Jesus.

This is a good example of how the power of iconography is a highly important consideration in the study of works of art. What to the uninformed eye may simply be decorative, may hold great symbolic significance to the informed. And when the viewer is poorly informed, they may make some whopping errors.

For example, I was recently thumbing through a book on spiritual pilgrimages one could make in Spain, and came across a description of Barcelona’s Cathedral, a topic I treated recently on my other blog. The author referred to the statue on top of the highest pinnacle of the Cathedral as the Virgin Mary holding the Cross, an enormous slip-up showing how much Western Civilization has declined in the understanding of its own history. Not only would the Virgin Mary never be portrayed as holding the Cross, but in a cathedral dedicated to the Holy Cross any reasonably educated chimpanzee brave enough to attempt to publish a book would or should know that the Empress Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, who discovered the Cross while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, is almost always depicted in art holding aloft the Cross.

In any case, what is of symbolic importance to the devotee is also of importance to historians in general, but should also be something which the educated man cares about. If a Christian of Western European origin might be forgiven for not being able to tell a sculpture of the Buddha from that of a Bodhisattva, he should at least be able to know something of his own history; particularly for Christians, symbolism was often the only way of making a public declaration of faith while still keeping out of the lion’s mouth. I suspect that if you were a wealthy Christian in the first few centuries after Christ, and as a sign of your devotion you commissioned a statue of a young shepherd for your home, you probably could have such a piece on display in the entrance foyer without attracting too much attention from your pagan neighbors when they came over for dinner. The symbolism would be lost on the dinner guests, and the form would not raise an eyebrow. Sadly, the world has now changed to such a degree that the symbolism might very well be lost on most Westerners as well.

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