The Good Shepherd between Deer Drinking at the Water of Life
Baptistry of St John, Naples
From Joseph Wilpert, Die römischen Mosaiken und Malereien der kirchlichen Bauten vom IV. bis XIII. Jahrhundert Volume 3 (1916) (Tafel 36a)
Stag and Hart drinking at the Water of Life
Mosaic fragment from the Christian pilgrimage church complex at Carthage, Bir Ftouha
6th century AD
1.4 m x 0.71 m
Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Baptism of Christ (f. 407v)
From Hours of the Holy Spirit, 'Officium de Sancto Spiritu'.
In Psalter and Hours, Dominican use (the Prayerbook of Alphonso V of Aragon)
225 x 155 mm
Add MS 28962
The British Library, London
The symbol of the deer drinking at the water of life as that of Baptism has for the modern man and woman lost its significance and power
It is the symbol of the human soul thirsting for God, finding only its thirst being slaked by Baptism
Father Joseph Wilpert (1856 - 1944) originally went to Rome to study canon law
However once there he became fascinated by the catacombs and the Christian art displayed in them
He became one of the leading Christian archaeologists, iconographers and Christian art historians of his generation specialising in the catacombs
He published a number of important works on the art which he discovered in the catacombs including:
Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms. 2 volumes Herder, Freiburg (Breisgau) 1903
Die römischen Mosaiken und Mareleien der kirchlichen Bauten vom IV. Bis XIII, Jahrhundert (1916).
In his work I sarcofagi Cristiani Antichi (Rome, 1929) (Volume 1,1 at page 18 he wrote about the early Christian iconography of baptism
In particular he drew attention to the symbol of the deer drinking at the water of life
He drew attention to the fact that the symbolism was based on Psalm 42
"2 As the deer longs for streams of water,so my soul longs for you, O God.3 My soul thirsts for God, the living God.When can I enter and see the face of God?"
He said that "the deer who drink became in ancient Christian art the symbol of baptism par excellence. In fact their images appear in all the baptistries of which we have sufficient remnants or in literary works"
From the earliest times the symbol of deer drinking at the water of life was part of the ceremony of baptism.
Psalm 42 was the song at the ceremony for Catechumens. Even today
We see this from St Augustine Exposition on the Psalms (Psalm 42)
"Such "longing" indeed is not found in all who enter the Church: let all however who have "tasted" the sweetness "of the Lord," and who own in Christ that for which they have a relish, think that they are not the only ones; but that there are such seeds scattered throughout "the field" of the Lord, this whole earth: and that there is a certain Christian unity, whose voice thus speaks, "Like as the hart desires the water-brooks, so longs my soul after You, O God."
And indeed it is not ill understood as the cry of those, who being as yet Catechumens, are hastening to the grace of the holy Font. On which account too this Psalm is ordinarily chanted on those occasions, that they may long for the Fountain of remission of sins, even "as the hart for the water-brooks."
Let this be allowed; and this meaning retain its place in the Church; a place both truthful and sanctioned by usage.
Nevertheless, it appears to me, my brethren, that such "a longing" is not fully satisfied even in the faithful in Baptism: but that haply, if they know where they are sojourning, and whither they have to remove from hence, their "longing" is kindled in even greater intensity.."
Joseph Mallord William Turner, (1775‑1851)
The Lake, Petworth: Sunset, a Stag Drinking
Oil paint on canvas
635 x 1320 mm
Tate Britain, London
Petworth is one of the most beautiful villages in England
Turner was often invited to stay at Petworth House
As a guest of the Egremonts, he often painted there
A large number of his Petworth paintings were begun either shortly before or shortly after his father’s death which occurred in 1829
Turner was deeply affected by the death of his father
He was invited to stay at Petworth House shortly after his father`s death and this was one of the works which he produced while there
One cannot say that Turner is a religious artist in the sense that the term is usually defined
But a number of his works have religious themes such as Death on a Pale Horse (1825 - 30), a depiction of Death, the last of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who announce the Day of Judgement (Book of Revelation)
But what Turner`s religious views were is known only to God
However in this painting wrought shortly after his father`s death, the death of his second parent, one sees in the colours of the sunset intimations of mortality
But one is also reminded of the Light and the Kingdom of Light which is the conditional promise to those baptised and of Colossians 1: 12-14:
"12 giving thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.13 He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."