How the lamb became a powerful Christian symbol

Hi everyone and welcome back to another episode of Exploring Art with Alessandro. Today I want to talk about a very important symbol in art: the lamb. We know that a lamb is this little cute young sheep, completely defenseless. So, why is it so popular to be depicted in many works of art (beside the fact that for a lot of people it’s considered also a traditional good meal)?

It sounds mean, but actually the 2 things are strictly related.

How did it start?

And we need to go back to the Book of Exodus when God instructed the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb at the Passover, and to repeat that sacrifice as a yearly tradition.

The lamb in fact was considered a pure creature, perfect for the sacrifices in the name of God. Does this concept remind you anything?

By tradition, Jesus fulfilled the role of the “Lamb of God”: defenseless before the people and ready to sacrifice himself to save them.

Girl with a lamb - Jean Baptiste Greuze

The Lamb as a symbol

As a consequence, the weakness of that creature became a symbol of hope, and so, of strength against the odds and the evil.

Not by chance, the Christian people are frequently referred to as sheep, under the guidance of the Good Shepherd.

Now it’s easy to understand why the lamb is present in many works of art, often religious, but not only as you can see in the beautiful Una and the Lion. It is an allegorical poem about Queen Elizabeth I, who, according to the story, trained the lion so well that it doesn’t attack the joyful lamb that is happily jumping in front of them.

Una and the lion - Briton Rivière
Una and the lion - Briton Rivière

Even here the role of the animal seems clear: it is a sort of temptation. Luckily, the lion is not interested and it’s beautiful the contrast between the sizes, colors and attitudes of the two animals carefully depicted in every detail as well as the elegant Queen who seems lost in her thoughts.

Talking about elegance, in Innocence by William-Adolphe Bouguereau we can see a young mom who is actually Mary, holding baby Jesus and a lamb. The scene is really sweet, but actually sad at the same time since now we know the meaning of that lamb and that’s why the symbols are so important. Without the lamb’s presence and the fact that now we know what it represents, we would just imagine that the scene was a pleasant rural portrait.

Innocence - William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Lamb, Mary and Jesus
Innocence - William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Lamb as protagonist

However, sometimes the lamb is even the protagonist of the scene, like in the mysterious Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the Flemish brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It is a section of Ghent Altarpiece, but our eye is caught by the lamb standing on an altar positioned in the middle of a verdant meadow.

It is surrounded by angels and a lot of people and, if we look carefully, the lamb has a wound on its breast from which blood gushes into a golden chalice, but it is not showing any pain… a clear reference to Christ’s sacrifice.

Adoration of the Mystic Lamb - van Eyck
Adoration of the Mystic Lamb

A symbol in a symbol, right? And that’s also why art history is fascinating. So, from now on, whenever you see a lamb in a work of art, don’t look at it just as food, but with a deeper meaning.

Beside the joke, once again my goal is to give you the tools to appreciate what we are observing and I am sure that now that you know more about this symbol you will enjoy more a lot of works of art.

Please leave your comments. We’ll discover soon other interesting art features, so remember to subscribe. Ciao!

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