The Lamb of God is the ancient name given to Jesus Christ, and recorded in the Scriptures. More than just a title, it has influenced Christian iconography from the first centuries until today. The image of the Lamb of God has also developed throughout the Church’s history.
The Lamb as a Symbol of Christ (1st to 3rd century A.D.)
To hear the Gospel is permitted to all: but the glory of the Gospel is reserved for Christ’s true children only… for the glory is enlightening for those who believe, and blinding for them that believe not… [Therefore] many things we often speak in a veiled way, that the believers who know may understand, and they who know not may get no hurt. (6th Catechetical Lecture, St Cyril of Jerusalem)
Speaking within living memory of state-sponsored persecutions against Christians, St Cyril (+386) offers above an explanation why much of the earliest iconography of the Church is symbolic. Even in the 4th century, when Christianity was legal, St Cyril still saw the need to use “veiled”, i.e. symbolic, language to explain parts of the Christian Faith. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Church’s earliest surviving icons employ symbolic images to instruct converts.
The fish, the anchor, the peacock, the ship, the Chi-Rho, and the shepherd (as a beardless young man) are all found in the Christian catacombs outside Rome, dating from the 2nd century, and all have their own meaning. Images of the shepherd certainly represent Christ, but the early Christians, knowing Jesus Christ was born a Jew, would have seen the young shepherd to represent Jesus, rather than being a likeness of Him. Among these images are those of the lamb.
The Lamb of God imagery dates to the Incarnation itself, when John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus walking toward him, exclaimed: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The imagery of Christ as “the Lamb” is also used extensively by St John in the Book of Revelation (e.g. Rev 5:6-14). And so an image of a lamb, the Agnus Dei in Latin, is instantly recognizable as Jesus Christ for the early Christians, whilst not meaning anything particular to pagans who might otherwise persecute this new religion.
The Lamb of God in the Christian Empire (4th to 7th century A.D.)
After the Edict of Milan, effectively legalizing Christian worship, churches slowly began to be built within the Roman-Byzantium Empire. Many of these buildings survive in Italy, surviving frescoes and mosaics showing how the images of “the Lamb” were now explicitly identified as Jesus Christ. The Byzantine-influenced 6th century churches of Ravenna and similar churches in Rome all have images of the Lamb of God, shown with a cruciform halo to identify Him as Jesus Christ. In the basilica of Ss Cosmas and Damian in Rome, the Agnus Dei is shown standing on a rock with four streams, flanked by twelve other sheep, symbolizing the Apostles. These symbolic images of Christ stand alongside contemporary images of the bearded Jesus Christ we recognize today.
These images of the Lamb of God were heavily influenced by the divine revelation of St John, in which the Apostle sees the Lamb seated upon a throne, around which the angels and elders worship. However, the symbolism of Jesus Christ as “the Lamb” also alludes to Christ’s death on the Cross “to take away the sins of the world”. This imagery is enshrined in the Divine Liturgy, which in one form or another dates back to St James, the half-brother of Jesus Christ. In the part of the Liturgy known as the Liturgy of Preparation a cube is cut from the centre of the small round loaf, and is referred to as the Lamb (Greek: Amnon). It is this Lamb which is consecrated to become the Body of Christ and from it both the clergy and the laity receive Holy Communion. And so, images of Jesus Christ as Agnus Dei are also found in the sanctuary of ancient churches, around the altar; sometimes, the Lamb of God is shown on the altar itself (see right).
The Rise of Iconcolasm and Prohibition of the Agnus Dei (8th century)
During the eighth century, an opposition to images of Jesus Christ and the Saints rose up in the (eastern) Roman Empire, initiated and supported by the emperor Leo III, and continuing under his successor, Constantine V. This resulted in the destruction of many religious images of Christ and His saints, as well as the murder of countless people (images of God in their own way) who continued to venerate icons. It is ironic, therefore, that the specific prohibition of images of the Lamb of God came not from the iconoclasts (image-smashers), but from an Orthodox council which predated the whole controversy.
At the Council of Trullo, held in 692, the 82nd canon declared:
In certain reproductions of venerable images, the precursor [John the Baptist] is pictured indicating the lamb with his finger. This representation was adopted as a symbol of grace. It is a hidden figure of that true lamb who is Christ, our God, and shown to us according to the Law. Having thus welcomed these ancient figures and shadows as symbols of the truth transmitted to the Church, we prefer today grace and truth themselves as a fulfillment of this law. Therefore, in order to expose to the sight of all that which is perfect, at least with the help of painting, we decree that henceforth Christ our God must be represented in His human form but not in the form of the ancient lamb.
In other words, for the bishops who attended the council, the image of Christ was in itself a confession of the physical reality of Jesus Christ’s incarnation in the flesh. Icons of the god-man Jesus Christ reaffirmed this, whereas images of a lamb did not. Nevertheless, the effects of the Council of Trullo might not have spread very far if it were not for the subsequent iconoclastic heresy, which began in the 700s. The first major opponent to the new heresy was St Germanus (+733), the Bishop of Constantinople. He used the argument implicit in the 82nd canon to defend the veneration of icons:
In eternal memory of the life in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, of His passion, His saving death, and the redemption of the world, which results from them, we have received the tradition of representing Him in His human form — i.e., in His visible Theophany —, understanding that we exalt in this way the humiliation of God the Word.
In other words: we make pictures of the invisible God because God first took on human flesh and made Himself visible as the person Jesus Christ.
This argument ultimately prevailed, and as such the canons of Trullo were included in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. Those canons included the prohibition of images of the Lamb of God. The older images of the Lamb of God, such as those in Ravenna survived because the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council were not “image-smashers”, yet new images of Jesus Christ as “the Lamb” were not allowed. The Lamb becomes the Melismos (11th century onwards)
After the Great Schism (1054), Rome had its own localized heresy to contend with: the denial that the real body and blood of Christ was present in the Eucharist. This Berengarian heresy was quickly stamped out, though the seeds were probably already sown in the west for this error to sprout-up again during the Reformation centuries later. The Orthodox churches in the East had already formally broken communion with Rome, and there is no evidence of this heresy ever troubling the Church of the Byzantine empire. Nevertheless, the Byzantine Empire continued to trade with the now Roman Catholic kingdoms of western Europe, and with trade of goods also comes an exchange of news and ideas.
It is therefore possible that a new image of Christ appearing in the late 11th century, was in part painted as a reaction to the heresy engulfing France: the melismos.
The melismos (Gr. μελισμος) shows the Infant-Christ on the altar, covered and laying upon the paten, in the place where the consecrated bread would be. What is called “the Lamb” in the Divine Liturgy, is depicted as the baby Jesus: a clear affirmation that the Eucharist is the real body and blood of Christ.
The earliest surviving image of the melismos is found above the altar of Saint George’s church, Kurbinovo, Macedonia, dated 1191. However, it may well be that there were older images of this type, and that they also arose as a response to the canon of Trullo prohibiting images of Jesus Christ as a lamb. Melismos is a Greek word which means “fracturing” or “division”, and relates to the point in the Liturgy when the priest breaks the Amnon (the cube of bread – see above) into four pieces saying: Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God; broken yet not divided; forever eaten yet never consumed, but sanctifying those who partake thereof. When the cube-shaped Lamb is cut from the loaf during the Liturgy of Preparation, the priest prays the words from Isaiah: He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, So He opened not His mouth. In His humiliation His justice was denied Him, Who will declare His generation? (Is 53:7-8, as quoted in Acts 8:32-33)
The infant-Christ better communicates the innocence and silence of “the lamb before the shearer”, and so this form of the melismos dominates; images of the adult-Christ laid out on the paten do exist, however. The melismos replaced the “Lamb of God” images at the altar in temples throughout the Byzantine Empire, with examples surviving from Cyprus to Romania. Not only is the melismos depicted in frescoes behind the sanctuary, but they also appear on Liturgical items, such as the veils used to cover the paten and protect the host from dust (see right). Later Images of the Lamb of God from Russia (16th century onwards)
Frescoes in the sanctuary are not as common in Russia as they were in the Byzantine empire, and as such icons of the melismos (Ru: Мелисмос) behind the altar are rare. However, Eucharistic depictions of the Lamb of God as the infant-Christ still occur, especially embroidered onto the veils used for covering the paten and chalice.
In addition, from around the 16th century onwards, icons of John the Baptist holding the melismos start to appear. These icons hearken back to the canon of Trullo, which specifically mention images of St John pointing towards a lamb representing Christ, and prohibits them. The Russian icons respond to this by substituting the symbolic “lamb” with the “real” Lamb: Jesus Christ in human-form. These icons identify the Christ-child as the Lamb of God by placing Him in a chalice, or on a paten covered by “the star” (the star is a metal frame used to support the veil and prevent it from touching the consecrated host). In this way, Christ is depicted in the same way as older Byzantine melismos images.
The Lamb of God Today
The west never followed the canon of Trullo, and images of lambs with halos, usually carrying a “St George’s Cross”, abound in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other Protestant churches. Within the Orthodox Church, Jesus Christ can still be found depicted as a lamb after the 7th century. Usually, these images are based upon the descriptions of Jesus as the Lamb found in the Book of Revelation, making them “literal-minded” paintings of divine, but allegorical, visions. Nevertheless, as the fathers of the Council at Trullo declared: “we prefer today grace and truth themselves”. And so, perhaps unique to the Orthodox Church, are the images of the infant Jesus Christ, laying upon the paten, or inside the chalice. The Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world is, for us, the eternal, divine Son, Who humbled Himself to take on human frailty, and be born of a woman; and so He is depicted as such in our temples.
What St Cyril of Jerusalem spoke about regarding symbols is still true today. The depictions of the Lamb of God, particularly those showing Him as an infant, are found in the sanctuary, or else upon Liturgical items. They belong to the inner-life of the Church: to the mystery of the Eucharist which is open only to those baptized into the Church. It is likely that the images of the Lamb of God shown above are understood differently by Christians and non-Christians. Some may find the pictures strange, some offensive, and others may find them ridiculous. I pray forgiveness from God if this is so, and hope that anyone who feels this way will soon forget what I’ve written. To the rest, I hope and pray that this post is useful.
We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-Giving Trinity;
let us now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all,
invisibly escorted by the hosts of angels. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.