IIn the Eastern Orthodox division of Christianity, which is the primary creator and user of Christian religious icons, there is a very strong emphasis on tradition. But tradition can at times be perilous, and it certainly does not guarantee freedom from error.
Eastern Orthodoxy has never been particularly careful about what it chose to accept as tradition, and this is quite obvious in the stories of the saints, which most believers — until very recently — took to be absolutely true, but which are filled with fictions and fantasy.
Some saints in the Orthodox calendar never existed, or else their existence has been so distorted and fantasized that they are no longer recognizable.
One of quite a number of such errors is seen here: the painting and veneration of icons of a saint called Christopher “Dog-head,” Christopher Kynokephalos.
Yes, the people who painted these icons — which were even included in the painters’ manuals — really did believe that there was a saint who had the head of a dog. But to put that in perspective, keep in mind that icons used to have inscriptions dating the time of their painting from the creation of the world, which the icon painters (and the rest of the Church) believed took place only some 7,000 years ago. That tradition, held for about as long as Eastern Orthodoxy has had a formal dogmatic proclamation authorizing the veneration and making of icons and cursing those who refuse to accept them, has now been quietly retired, except among very conservative Eastern Orthodox, including no doubt many Old Believers.
And though icons of St. Christopher “Dog-head” were painted and venerated in both the Russian and Greek branches of the church, and of course instructions were found in painters’ manuals, one does not generally see new icons of this saint being painted today, or even old ones being venerated in the churches. This saint — in this form — has also been quietly retired, because some traditions do come back to bite you.
There were stories of dog-headed men in early pre-Christian Greek writings, so it is not surprising that when people read that there was a saint from the land of dog-headed men whose name was Christopher (Khristophoros = “Bearer of Christ”), they assumed that he was one of an odd race at the edge of the world, and that he — a soldier — had been converted to Christianity. The “dog-headed men” in these old stories — at least when referring to Africa — may have actually been baboons, which the Greeks later called “Dog-headed Ones” (kynokephaloi).
In Herodotus, Histories 4. 191. 3 (circa 5th century B.C.) we find :
“For the eastern part of Libya, which is inhabited by nomads, is low-lying and sandy as far as the Triton river; but the land west of this, where the farmers live, is very mountainous and wooded and filled with wild animals. In that country are huge snakes and lions, and elephants and bears and asps, horned asses, and the Dog-headed and the Headless men who have their eyes in their chests, as the Libyans say, and the wild men and women…. “
Other early accounts place dog-headed men in India as well.
Christians accepted the existence of dog-headed men as part of the supposed “knowledge” of the time.
On Cyprus at a much later date, another tradition developed, saying that Christopher was not born with a dog’s head. Instead, he was such a strikingly handsome youth that women were always after him. Wanting to avoid temptation, Christopher prayed to God, who in answer to the prayer changed his head to that of a dog.
There is a very good summary of the origins — speculative, inevitably, but well done — of the cult of St. Christopher at this site:
As is common, this summary states that there is no connection between Christopher and Greco-Roman depictions of the Egyptian jackal-headed god Anubis. Perhaps. But the resemblance to icons of Christopher is nonetheless remarkable, and there are many blank spots in his history.
The earliest surviving Eastern Orthodox example of an icon of Christopher dog-head seems to be this Latin-inscribed ceramic image from Macedonia, depicting him with St. George, dating from the 6th-7th century c.e.:
In the “modernizing” reign of Peter the Great, the “Holy Synod” censored the painting of icons of Christopher Dog-head in Russia in 1722, but as with the earlier Stoglav proclamation against painting icons of God the Father (Gospod’ Savaof), it was often ignored in everyday practice, particularly by the Old Believers who did not accept rulings of the State Church, and those painting icons for the Old Believers People saw no need to stop doing what had long been done, because in Orthodoxy tradition is very important. In Russian icons, Christopher’s head sometimes tends to look more like that of a horse than the more dog-like depictions favored in Greek icons.
Was there ever a real “Christopher,” under any name, with or without a dog’s head? It hardly matters, because the story is so distorted by time and imagination that any real person who may have been behind it has been submerged in hagiography to the point of oblivion. It is often the case that there is little or no difference between Eastern Orthodox traditions and folk tales.
An old Russian painters’ manual describes how he is to be painted:
And the Holy Martyr Christopher: A dog’s head, in armor, in the hand a cross and in the other a sword in sheath; outer robe cinnabar with white, under green; elsewhere is written: Christopher: young man like Demetrius of Thessalonika, robe carmine, under green, in the hand a scroll:
“Lord Almighty, where my memory is honored and you are praised, save them from sin and do not judge them.”
In the following example, a so-called “prayer” icon — Christopher “Dog-head” is seen in Roman armor, with the martyr Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (Vera, Nadezha, Liubov)
Each holds a cross of martyrdom. The two border saints are Ekaterina (Catherine) and Marfa (Martha). Christ blesses form the clouds above.
Icons depicting the dog-headed St. Christopher together with Sophia and her daughters are surprisingly frequent. The reason for this is said to be that to the Old Believers, these saints signified persistence and perseverance in the face of persecution and torment, and Christopher also was believed to protect against sudden death. So it was common for an icon combining these saints to be found as a family patronal icon among Old Believers. The forbidding of the dog-headed Christopher by the “Holy Synod” in 1722 only confirmed the Old Believers in their notion that the persecuting State Church was on the side of the Antichrist, and so they clung to icons of Christopher “Dog-head” even more firmly, and continued to paint and venerate them even as they faded away in State Church iconography.
Here is another example with the same pairing of Christopher with Sophia and her daughters:
As one might expect, most modern depictions of Christopher in State Church Eastern Orthodoxy depict him as a normal-looking human, dressed as a Roman soldier.