Animals in Orthodox Icons
Animals are often depicted together with saints in Orthodox iconography. These animals are either mentioned in the saint's life or, as in the case of St. George, refer to miraculous appearances of the saint. Saint Gerasimus (right) is often painted together with his lion ‘Jordan’, and St. Seraphim of Sarov, more rarely, with his bear ‘Misha’.
Below, Metropolitan Peter of Krutitsk is depicted next to a bear illustrating an actual event in his life. St. Peter was imprisoned and then exiled by the atheistic Communists for his refusal to compromise the Orthodox faith by submitting to the new ‘Soviet’ Church. He died in December 1936 after ten years of persecution.
In the case of martyred soldier saints, animals often illustrate rank rather than a particular incident in the saint’s life. Saints Sergius and Bacchus, for example, are often depicted on horseback as a representation of their status in the army. All these representations of animals occur in traditional Orthodox iconography. We will now discuss briefly two representations of animals that are not Orthodox.
The Holy Martyr Christopher was martyred in the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius. The life of St. Christopher refers to him being ‘dog faced’ – in other words, he was frightening to look at! This reference has led some iconographers to paint St. Christopher with an actual head of a dog! This practice is not Orthodox because icons depict men, women and children glorified by the Holy Spirit. This glorification can never be represented by representing human nature as animal nature.
Fortunately, these icons of St. Christopher are now rare, but it is common to see in Christ depicted as an actual lamb (right) in Roman Catholic and Anglican religious art. This practice is based on the Old Testament prefiguring of Christ as the Passover Lamb.
The Passover Lamb mentioned in Exodus was sacrificed so that by painting their door-posts with the blood, the houses of the Israelites might be ‘passed over’ and that their first-born might be saved (cf. Exodus 12:12). This lamb was the Passover for the Hebrews, but Christ is our Passover Lamb sacrificed for us (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7). We celebrate this our Passover every year at Pascha.
The Old Testament Passover Lamb is therefore a foreshadowing or ‘type’ of Christ. All these Old Testament prefigurings were, as St. Paul teaches, merely ‘a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things’ (Heb. 10:1). Christ is indeed the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), but He did this by becoming man. It is for this reason, that we do not depict Christ as His shadow (an actual Lamb), but as He actually appeared to us: as God and Man. We represent in icons the image of grace and truth which we received as a fulfilment of the law rather than the Old Testament foreshadowing.
Also, in depicting Christ in human form, rather than as a Lamb, we come to an understanding of the extreme humility of Christ in becoming a Lamb to the slaughter (Is. 53:7) and remember His life in the flesh, His passion, saving death and the redemption which He wrought for the world.