The holy Great Martyr Christopher died for Christian faith in circa 250 BC during the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius I. According to his life account, the saint was descended from the Canaanites and was at first named Reprobus (outcast in Greek) before being baptized. According to tradition, St. Christopher had a human body and a dog head. There are various suggestions about this legend. Some historians believe that he was descended from the land of the “Cynocephalai” (dog-heads) while others link the origin of his name with phonetic similarity of the words “Canaanites” and “canis” (dog). According to other legend, St. Christopher was very handsome but, wishing to avoid moral decline, he asked the Lord to give him an ugly face, who made him look like a dog. The Synaxarion of Constantinople tells that the dog-headed appearance of the saint and his origin from the land of the Cynocephalus and anthropophagites (cannibals) is a symbolic interpretation of his rudeness and savagery during the time he was a pagan. Svetlana Lipatova suggests that St. Christopher’s ugliness was associated with his battle wounds rather than with other myths.
There are several versions of St. Christopher’s images in Byzantine art that had developed in the early era. He is frequently depicted as a young man dressed in Patrician clothes (frescoes from the Visoki Decani Monastery in Kosovo and from the Church of St. Clement in Ochrida) or an armor suit. He is also encountered on the frescoes of the Church of the Buckle (Tokali Kilise in Göreme, Turkey, 10th – 11th AD centuries), on the mosaics of the Hosios Loukas Monastery (the second quarter of the 11th century). In medieval Rus a depiction of St. Christopher as a young warrior survived in the diaconicon arch at the Church of St. George in Staraya Ladoga (the last quarter of the 12th century).
The earliest known image of Pesyeglavets (dog-headed man) is represented on a Macedonian icon dating back to the 6th – 7th centuries AD. The Novgorodian redaction of the 16th century Painter’s Guide prescribes to portray St. Christopher as «аки Дмитрий, риза бакан, испод празелен», i.e. as a young soldier; in medieval Russian art of the second half of the 16th century and the 17th century St. Christopher was often depicted as a dog-headed man (The State Tretyakov Gallery, an iconostasis door dating back to the second half of the 16th century from the Holy Trinity Church in the village of Krivoe, the Archangelsk region). In 1707, in accordance with Peter the Great’s decree to observe the iconographic rules adopted by the Great Moscow Assembly in 1667, the Synod ruled to forbid the icons “distorting nature, history and the truth” among which was also a St. Christopher icon portraying him as a dog-headed man. The holy hierarch Dimitry Rostovsky also disapproved dog-headed images of St. Christopher.
St. Christopher is commemorated on May 22 (May 9, the old style).
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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