The New Testament

   
The Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation are at the heart of any consideration of the Lamb of God. The events of the Passion are prefigured in the words of John the Baptist:

    Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. John 1. 29.  

    In the synoptic gospels, the Last Supper is eaten as a Passover feast, for which the lambs have been sacrificed. John's gospel moves the events a day earlier, so that the Last Supper happens before the Passover and the crucifixion coincides with it - effectively, Jesus become the Paschal Lamb, the Passover sacrifice. 

    Paintings of the Last Supper have provided interesting material for food historians and for celebrity chefs looking for bizarre ideas to outdo their rivals. Of course, the most important ingredients are the bread and wine, and in focussing on these, some Last Suppers look a little meagre, and the apostles might have headed home rather hungry. Should a Paschal Lamb be there?

   Paintings based on the synoptic gospels might well include one, but if artists took their inspiration from John it would be correct not to.
    In Jacopo Bassano's last supper the Paschal Lamb has been eaten, and just its head remains. The happy dog looks as if has had his share.



Galleria Borghese, Rome

 
Crespi's last supper looks much more inviting, with a roast lamb and plenty of fish - appropriate, of course, for the apostles, who were fishermen. The fish is a powerful Christian symbol. The round things (top left in the detail) look interesting -  can any cooks guess what they might be? Slices through an orange?



Daniele Crespi
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

   Duccio's Paschal Lamb is a rather odd looking creature, more like one entirely unsuitable for a Jewish Passover.


From the Maesta, Museo dell Opera del Duomo Siena

   The Book of Revelation has been a happy hunting ground for scholars from the very earliest times, and, inevitably, no-one agrees on what it means. What are we to make of the book's extraordinary imagery, with its Lion of Judah, half lion, half lamb, with seven eyes and seven horns? 

  Saint Augustine offers what is probably still the best interpretation:

   Why a lamb in his passion? Because he underwent death without being guilty of any iniquity. Why a lion in his passion? Because in being slain, he slew death. Why a lamb in his resurrection? Because his innocence is everlasting. Why a lion in his resurrection? Because everlasting also is his might.

  But there is plenty more baffling stuff to think about.  Who is the Beast from the sea?  What of the seven-headed dragon, the seven seals, and the four horses with their mysterious riders?
    To my mind, the most convincing interpretation of all this  must reflect the concerns of the time the book was written. What all too often happens is that the text is interpreted retrospectively to fit the particular world view of the interpreter. The key question to ask is, if the author had a message to impart, why do it in such an obscure way? 
  If, as many scholars think, the text was written at a time of Christian persecution, then this provides a possible answer. As with some of the early Christian imagery described in this study, under these circumstances ambiguity was no bad thing. The story of St. John and the boiling oil sounds apocryphal, but it might well have an element of truth in it. Could the Great Beast be a Roman  Emperor, even Nero himself? Well, there are are a lifetime of theories out there, including various ingenious interpretations of the number 666. 

  Let's stick to art. Actually, that's not easy, as artists seem to have taken one look at all these images and decided to forget it and try something a little less taxing. Not so Albrecht Durer: his woodcut series on the apocalypse is breathtaking. If you want to see them all, the Web Gallery of Art at www.wga.hu  has them: here is The Adoration of the Lamb and the Hymn of the Chosen. Did he base this woodcut on the Ghent altarpiece?



Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France

  The image of the lion of Judah is a study in itself. Christian versions such as Durer's tend to be more lamb-like, other faiths more lion-like. The blood and cup in Durer's image stress the sacrificial element. 
   The older version of the Ethiopian flag (below) shows a lion. Although the flag has now been replaced with something rather blander, this version is still popular with Rastafarians.


The Shepherd and the Lamb index                                                                                                                     Home page