The Good Ram-bearer

The Great Pastoral Sarcophagus, c.300 CE
(Pius-Christian Museum, Vatican City)

The Good Ram-bearer

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is often known as Good Shepherd Sunday on account of the Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel appointed for the day. In them, we hear Jesus described as the Good Shepherd who looks after and knows each and every one of his sheep, protecting them from robbers and strangers.

The c.4th Great Pastoral Sarcophagus is the original resting place of an unknown (but clearly very wealthy) Roman Christian. In the middle are several tableaux depicting various scenes from an idealized, rural setting: grazing sheep, fighting rams, vine dressing, and ploughing. These scenes are flanked by two large figures. On the right, we see a figure often found on Paleo-Christian sarcophagi--a lady holding up her hands in the orans (praying) position. On the left, there is a man in a kriophoros (ram-bearer) pose--a popular Graeco-Roman statue type which portrays a youth taking a ram to sacrifice.

However, this particular kriophoros is set against a background of grazing sheep and even has a sheepdog at his right heel. Clearly, he is a man who is more interested in caring for sheep than sacrificing them--the man is none other than the Good Shepherd. It is worth unpacking this reinterpretation and truly appreciating the degree to which the original meaning of the kriophoros has been turned upside-down. The sheep which is being carried is not a sacrificial victim but rather the sole focus of the bearer's care and attention. It is now the man who is the sacrifice: he is the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life in order to protect and save the flock and who gathers together his sheep, leading them down the right path to a place of safety and comfort.

The King of Love my Shepherd Is
Music: arr. Edward Bairstow (1874-1946)
Words: Paraphrase of Psalm 23 by Henry Baker (1821-77)
Artists: The Choir of St Paul's K Street, Washington D.C./Jeffrey Smith

From 1913 until his death in 1946, Sir Edward Bairstow served as Organist and Choirmaster of York Minster. In addition to elevating the reputation of the Minster choir, he composed a vast amount of sacred choral music. Among his anthems and service settings, Bairstow wrote a handful of hymn-arrangements. His most famous is his setting of the The King of Love my Shepherd is--a paraphrase of Psalm 23 set to an Irish folk melody known as 'St Columba'. 

A dramatic and beautiful setting of the words, Bairstow depicts the Good Shepherd in his organ part with a meandering, pastoral melody on a sonorous flute stop. This melody leads and guides the choral parts throughout the course of the anthem and advises them of which harmonic and melodic direction to take. 

The King of Love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His
 And He is mine for ever.

Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul He leadeth,
And where the verdant pastures grow 
With food celestial feedeth.

In death's dark vale I fear no ill,
With Thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy Cross before to guide me.

Thou spread'st a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And O what transport of delight
From Thy pure chalice floweth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed;
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home rejoicing brought me.

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house for ever.


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