We live in a highly visual culture, where information is largely communicated through images. As a result, we often think with mental pictures. But are the images we commonly associate with biblical texts actually faithful to Scripture? Our most familiar image of the Good Shepherd may come from Tiffany windows showing Jesus carrying a lamb. Lushly colored, like much of late 19th century art, and romantic in expression, Tiffany windows remain popular and continue to be influential today. And yet, the Tiffany approach to the Good Shepherd may have more to do with the Luke parable about the person who goes in search of the one lost sheep than John’s presentation of Jesus’ words, where he identifies himself as the Good Shepherd of the flock.
Japanese Christian woodblock artist Sadao Watanabe made several prints of the Good Shepherd. This one is beautifully simple and typical of his hand-made cards. Looking over his life’s work, we can see significant parallels between his prints and historical European art. In particular, his portrayal of biblical people is influenced by medieval Christian stained glass and manuscript illustrations, as well as by Eastern Christian iconography. In this print, we see how an Japanese artist shares our Western tendency to see the Good Shepherd in terms of our Lord’s relationship with us as individuals.
Like familiar Tiffany images, Watanabe portrays the Good Shepherd who carries a single lamb. Less familiar are other elements of his print. The artist depicts a large vine laden with grapes, which represent at least two ideas. The promised land toward which God led Israel was filled with vineyards bearing abundant fruit. And in New Testament, the fruit of the vine gains eucharistic significance through our Lord’s cup at the Last Supper. Surrounding the shepherd figure, we see flowers, likely representing the passion flower, symbolic of our Lord’s saving death. Behind the main figure are large and small bands of white against a dark background. Though the symbolism here is not immediately clear, the artist may have had in mind the words of Psalm, 23, and the valley of the shadow through which the Lord safely leads us.
These distinctive aspects of Watanabe’s Good Shepherd do not necessarily set it apart from features of Tiffany Good Shepherd windows. But notice this subtle aspect of Watanabe’s print, which reflects the influence of Christian medieval art. Whereas Tiffany images of Jesus expressively portray his presumed personality and character, Watanabe’s Shepherd resembles traditional iconographic images, where the focus is more on the Lord’s action, and less on his personality. Along with the blank intensity of the eyes, the most strongly communicative aspect of the Jesus figure is his hands, and not his facial expression. Watanabe focuses on what the Good Shepherd does; and what the Good Shepherd does is devote himself to the sheep.
Sadao Watanabe, The Good Shepherd, 1968. See John 10:11-18; compare Luke 15:3ff. Click here for a link to my Sunday homily on the theme of the Good Shepherd, and on historical and artistic reflection which it has inspired.