Christ the Good Shepherd

Christ the Good Shepherd

Jesus said, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.” Mat. 18:12-13

“Jesus speaks a parable, in which He sets forth the Father as seeking the salvation of humans, and saying, “What think you, If a man have a hundred sheep.” This refers to the Creator Himself; for a hundred is a perfect number, and He had a hundred sheep when He created the substance of Angels and men. But by the one sheep is to be understood one man, and under this one man is comprehended the whole human race. He that seeks man is Christ, and the ninety and nine are the host of the heavenly glory which He left. The Evangelist says they were left ‘on the mountains,’ to signify that the sheep, which were not lost, abode on high. He placed the sheep upon his shoulder, for taking human nature upon him he bore our sins. But having found the sheep, he returns home; for our shepherd, having restored humanity, returns to his heavenly kingdom.”  Saint Gregory

I made an altarpiece for the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Charlestown, New Hampshire. It was made in close collaboration with the community there, incorporating their suggestions and ideas and wants for an icon to be above the altar of their church.  I had in mind the early Christian interpretation of Christ’s parable, in which the one lost sheep is human nature itself, and the shepherd is the eternal divine Logos.  The ninety-nine which the shepherd leaves are the Holy Angels.

The painting is shaped like a door or gateway to the sheepfold. The path descends by way of humility to the church. Through the church one continues across the river, and, through Christ, up the mountain. At the top of the mountain are the Archangels Michael, Rafael and Gabriel, standing for the whole hierarchy of Angels.

The image is divided into a lower earthly and an upper heavenly sections. Christ stands as the upright axis, the Tree of Life, connecting heaven and earth, spirit and matter, Angels and humans.

 The community also wanted their church, and the nearby mountain and Connecticut river, to be included in the icon as part of the transfigured heavenly landscape.

The hand above symbolizes the Father, dwelling in the divine mystery, beyond all comprehension, signified by the dark blue. The Dove represents the Holy Spirit. In the heavens are the sun and moon pointing to Christ. The opposites are reconciled and united in the hypostatic union of God and man. Also, the moon, with its changing light, represents discursive reasoning and meditation; and the sun and its unchanging light represents contemplation. All sciences, meditations and contemplation are completed in the Incarnate Word.

The work began with many sketches and drawings.

After finalizing the drawing, the birch ply panel was cut, sanded and gessoed with marble dust and rabbit skin glue.

The drawing is then transferred to the panel.

Before most of the painting began the halo was made using clay, hide glue and gold leaf. The underlying clay is soft enough to make patterns by burnishing some parts, and pressing a stylus into other parts.

The painting itself is built up by many, probably hundreds of, layers. This is one of the special traits of egg-tempera painting: that it allows for many layers, often each one being very transparent (called ‘glazes’), which produces a beautiful translucent ‘spiritual’ quality.

Sometimes the first layers are very different than the final color, as can be seen in the process of painting the leaves of the tree, first in a contrary color such as orange.

Egg-tempera paint is an ancient technique, used by the Egyptians. Ground stones and earths are mixed with egg yolk.  Here I am grinding a piece of lapis lazuli which an American soldier obtained for me in Afghanistan. Lapis, along with other blues including azurite, diaptase and cobalt, are used in the sky.

After most of the painting is done, gold leaf and silver leaf are applied to the border and to the sun, moon and stars; as well as to the seven fruits on the tree (which represent the seven sacraments).

Finally the icon was delivered and installed at the Church of the Good Shepherd on the day that the children’s summer Bible camp was ending. This was especially fitting since, as part of the camp the previous summer, the children had made artwork of Christ the Good Shepherd to help with envisioning the icon.

On delivery I explained the icon and answered the children’s questions. 

“Who is that for?” asks one child.

“For you, for your church,” I answer.

“Well who gets to take it home,” asks another.

“Maybe we can each take home a part.”
“I want to take home the lamb!” says one.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thank you , Sean. For sharing your beauty and the methods behind creating it.

  2. Thanks for sharing your process, Sean. I can only imagine what it is like to make something so meaningful to so many.
    How come the clay doesn’t crumble when it’s dry? How do you adhere it to the wood and then adhere the gold leaf to the clay? Is the hide glue that does it?

    1. Yes, some hide glue is mixed into the clay, along with some warm water and a little honey. Once the clay is dry one can breath on it, or put some water on it, to activate the glue so the gold leaf will stick.

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