The icon of Saint Christopher (which was later prohibited by the Synod of 1722 for being “contrary to nature, history, and the truth itself”) will leave you afraid, astonished, or even indignant: Saint Christopher is depicted with a dog’s head. The combination of animal and human traits is a characteristic of a demon or a mythical creature in medieval art.
According to one version of his biography, Saint Christopher hailed from a tribe of cynocephales, that is, dog-headed people who were often mentioned by antique and medieval authors. This is contested because the appearance of this image can be attributed to an incorrect interpretation of the saint’s name. According to one hypothesis, it is a distorted name of the geographical region where Christopher was from – Cynoscephalae (a mountainous region in Thessalia, Greece). Also, the word Canaanite (a person from Canaan) sounds similar to the Latin word canis, ‘dog’. Another version attributes it to the literal treatment of the description of the saint’s appearance, “a beast-like man”. A biography of Saint Christopher, spread around Cyprus and later in Russia, has it that the saint had been very handsome but then asked the Lord to make him ugly because he wanted to avoid temptation.
There are several versions of the biography of Saint Christopher in the Eastern and the Western traditions.
According to the Eastern tradition (see Lives of Saints in Russian, p. 290; Menaia, May, Pt. 1, p. 363) that there was a man named Reprebus captured in combat against tribes in east Egypt during the reign of Decius. He was enormously tall and dog-headed like all members of his tribe. Reprebus had openly declared his Christian faith and rebuked those who persecuted Christians prior to his baptism. Emperor Decius sent two hundred soldiers to capture him. Reprebus did not resist. There were miracles on their way: a staff in the saint’s hand flowered, and he multiplied loaves of bread with his prayer, like the Savior had done. The soldiers who escorted Reprebus were so impressed by miracles that they converted to Christianity and got baptized by Babylas, a bishop from Antioch, together with Reprebus. Christopher was the name that Reprebus received in baptism. When Christopher was brought before the emperor, the latter called two harlots in and ordered them to seduce the saint to make him renounce Christ. However, when the women returned to the emperor, they declared that they were Christians, too. They were brutally murdered and died as martyrs. Decius sentenced Christopher to capital punishment. After cruel torture, the martyr was decapitated.
Western legends are quite different from the ones we are used to. According to some researchers, they could have appeared in the 6th century. Generally, the Catholic tradition is based on the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Varagine. It tells the story of a giant named Reprebus who took it into his head to go and serve “the greatest king there was”. He went to the king who was reputed to be the greatest, but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil. He went on to serve the devil but then he found out that the devil feared Christ.
He met a hermit who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked him how he could serve Christ. The hermit suggested that because of his size and strength Christopher could serve Christ by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where they were perishing in the attempt.
After Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked him to take him across the river. During the crossing, the river became swollen and the child seemed as heavy as lead, so much that Christopher could scarcely carry him. The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.” Then Jesus baptized Reprebus in the river, and he received his new name Christopher, which means the one who carries Christ. Then Baby Jesus told Christopher to stick a tree branch into the ground, and it would grow into a fruit tree. This miracle converted many people into the faith. The local governor was outraged and threw Christopher into prison, where he was tormented to death. This story had a great influence on Western iconography. The saint is invariably depicted with Baby Jesus on his shoulders. Contrary to a widespread misconception, Saint Christopher hasn’t been decanonized by the Catholic Church. He remains one of the most venerated saints.
Veneration of Saint Christopher is less widespread in Russia. All his icons you can buy in church shops portray the saint with a regular human head and Baby Jesus on his shoulders. The dog-headed images of Christopher can be found only in Old Rite communities and only on those rare icons and frescoes, which haven’t been re-painted.