Dog-headed Saint Christopher

In the previous post, I omitted one of the popular warrior saints, whose story is so different from the others that it requires a separate post.

The Martyrs St. Stephen and Dog-headed St. Christopher. Greek, early 18th c. Recklinghausen, Icon Museum

The Martyr St. Christopher the Dog-headed – Ἅγιος Χριστόφορος ὁ Κυνοκέφαλος, Hagios Christophoros ho Kynokephalos – is revered in the Orthodox Church to this day. At first sight, even the most unshakable believer raises his eyebrows, but once he gets to know the background, he will understand that there is plenty of logic and moral lesson in his veneration.

Christopher’s story has survived in his 8th-c. Latin martyr’s act (which you can read here, on pages X. 393-405 of Analecta Bollandiana), but it was apparently translated from Greek, even if the surviving Greek version is later, and a church was dedicated to the saint on Greek soil as early as 452. The source dates his martyrdom to the time of Emperor Decius (259-261). It says that Christopher “came from a foreign land, the land of man-eaters. He had a terrible look and a dog-head.” Or as the palace servant later describes him to the emperor: “His head is a terrible dog-head. His hair is long and shines like gold. His eyes are like the morning star, and his teeth protrude like the fangs of a wild boar. There is no word to describe his greatness.” Christopher served as a soldier in the imperial court, and when he heard Decius’s decree that everyone should sacrifice to the gods under penalty of death, he, as a Christian, refused to do so, and began to preach. As a proof of his truth, he drove his stick into the ground, and it immediately blossomed and bore fruit. Thousands in the city converted as the effect of his sermon, including the soldiers sent to capture him. He voluntarily went with them to the emperor, and continued his sermon there.

Martyr St. Christopher, with an inserted picture: Christopher before the gentile ruler. Athos, 18th c.



The emperor sent him to prison, and sent two beautiful young servants or prostitutes to seduce him and persuade him to sacrifice to the gods. But the two servants also converted. Returning to the emperor, they announced that they had succeeded in convincing Christopher. So the emperor organizes a great feast so the sacrifice should have great publicity. In the banquet hall, however, Christopher and the servants pull all the statues off the walls and shatter them on the ground. Then the emperor orders the execution of Christopher, but neither does fire kill him nor do arrows hit him. Eventually, he is beheaded.

St. Christopher, with scenes of his martyrdom. Greek, 19th c. Recklinghausen, Icon Museum

St. Christopher is baked on a hot iron plate. Vetka, 19th c. The iron plate melted before the saint was harmed.

They try to execute St. Christopher with arrows. Vetka, 19th c. One arrow bounces back, and hits the eye of the gentile ruler. Christopher promises him that after his death, he will heal him with his blood. The king anoints his eye with the beheaded Christopher’s blood, and is indeed healed, so he also converts to Christianity.

In its broad strokes, the story coincides with other martyrdom stories. However, it does not explain Christopher’s most striking feature, his dog’s head. It is a fixed attribute of him from the very beginning: so the story must have taken it from somewhere else.

The source is another prominent martyr’s act that of Apostle St. Bartholomew, which originated in Syriac territory in the first half of the 400s. St. Bartholomew and his companions were on a mission to Persia, and on reaching the city of cannibals, an inhabitant of it – who, like all the inhabitants of the city, was of giant stature and dog-headed – was assigned to them by an angel as a protector. St. Bartholomew baptized him, and replaced his original name Reprobus – ʻoutcast’, ʻdiscarded’ – with Christophorus – Christo-phoros, ʻChrist-bearing’. Upon baptism, the giant immediately learned to speak human language. Arriving at a Parthian city, the king invited them to a feast, where he invited them to sacrifice to the gods. Christopher then destroys the statues of the gods

Wonders and martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. Hungarian Anjou Legendary, 1325-1335. Vatican Library

It is apparent that the two stories are connected. We could say that the authors decided to continue the successful first season, by making its only survivor and most spectacular figure, Christopher, the protagonist of the second season, reprising the most magnificent action scene of the previous season. The protagonist introduces himself in the second story, too: I was called Rebrebus, but now I am Christophorus. “Rebrebus” is obviously a distorted form of the Latin Reprobus in the Syriac/Greek original, which was not recognized by the Latin translator. Yet if he had recognized it, he would have found its explanation in Psalm 117:22-23: “Lapis quem reprobaverunt aedificantes hic factus est in caput anguli. A Domino factus est: hic est mirabilis in oculis nostris” – “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord: it is marvellous in our eyes.” Jesus explains this verse to the Pharisees in Mt 21:43: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce fruit for it.” The story of Reprobus, who became a Christ-bearing martyr, exemplifies that God can raise followers for himself even from the farthest regions and strangest people of the earth.

What strange people is this?

The Ionic – that is, Persian Greek – physician Ctesias was the court doctor of the Persian king Artaxerxes II in the 5th c. BC. Xenophon also mentions him in the Anabase: he negotiated on behalf of the king with the Spartan mercenaries of his younger brother Cyrus who had revolted against him but had been defeated, and he warned them that the king wanted to slaughter them. His country descriptions Persica and Indica as works of a local author were widely read sources among the Greeks, although we know that he obtained most of his information second-hand, from traders arriving on the Silk Road. He also included such a report about the dog-headed people beyond the Indus:


“They speak no language, but bark like dogs, and in this manner make themselves understood by each other. Their teeth are larger than those of dogs, their nails like those of these animals, but longer and rounder. They inhabit the mountains as far as the river Indus. Their complexion is swarthy. They are extremely just, like the rest of the Indians with whom they associate. They understand the Indian language but are unable to converse, only barking or making signs with their hands and fingers by way of reply ... They live on raw meat. They number about 120,000.

The Cynocephali living on the mountains do not practice any trade but live by hunting. When they have killed an animal they roast it in the sun. They also rear numbers of sheep, goats, and asses, drinking the milk of the sheep and whey made from it. They eat the fruit of the Siptakhora, whence amber is procured, since it is sweet. They also dry it and keep it in baskets, as the Greeks keep their dried grapes. They make rafts which they load with this fruit together with well-cleaned purple flowers and 260 talents of amber, with the same quantity of the purple dye, and thousand additional talents of amber, which they send annually to the king of India. "They exchange the rest for bread, flour, and cotton stuffs with the Indians, from whom they also buy swords for hunting wild beasts, bows, and arrows, being very skillful in drawing the bow and hurling the spear. They cannot be defeated in war, since they inhabit lofty and inaccessible mountains. Every five years the king sends them a present of 300,000 bows, as many spears, 120,000 shields, and 50,000 swords.

They do not live in houses, but in caves. They set out for the chase with bows and spears, and as they are very swift of foot, they pursue and soon overtake their quarry. The women have a bath once a month, the men do not have a bath at all, but only wash their hands. They anoint themselves three times a month with oil made from milk and wipe themselves with skins. The clothes of men and women alike are not skins with the hair on, but skins tanned and very fine. The richest wear linen clothes, but they are few in number. They have no beds, but sleep on leaves or grass. He who possesses the greatest number of sheep is considered the richest, and so in regard to their other possessions. All, both men and women, have tails above their hips, like dogs, but longer and more hairy.

They are just, and live longer than any other men, 170, sometimes 200 years.”


Circle of Master Boucicaut: Livre des Merveilles, ca. 1410-20. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale

The report was taken for granted not only by the Greeks, but also by later ages, and the country of the dog-headed people was included on the mental map of the Middle Ages. They were also mentioned in the Alexander Romance about the deeds and conquests of Alexander the Great, in the 14th-century wonderful travels of John of Mandeville, and in Marco Polo’s Milione as well. And the need for their vision was served by the tabloid genres of the age, from vernacular chronicles to woodcut calendars.

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To prevent misunderstandings, I should also mention a subordinate case of the medieval depictions of dog-headed people: the illustration of Psalm 22:17 (“For many dogs have encompassed me, the council of the malignant…”), such as in the Byzantine Theodore Psalter of 1066, or the Kiev Psalter of 1397 copying it. Among the dog-headed soldiers we see Christ himself, as on the basis of His “seven words on the cross”, this was the psalm which he prayed before His death:



And if the dog-headed people exist, then they are also subject to Christ’s call to the apostles: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28,19). That is why dog-headed persons as an emblem of the completeness of “all nations” figure in such depictions as the gate of the Magdalene Church in Vézelay (1140-50), where Jesus is just saying the above to the apostles, and among all nations represented in the arch of the gate, the closest ones to Christ is a dog-headed couple. Or in the Armenian miniatures of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, where in the lower arch, in place of the allegoric figure of the world to be converted, representatives of some people are waiting, including the one with a dog’s head.






The Assyrian Dioscoros Theodoros Lectionarium, 12-13th c. Mardin, Assyrian monastery

The original formula of the icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, with the allegory of the world under the arch, keeping the cities of the world in his shawl

The first known depiction of the dog-headed saint is relatively early: a 5-6th century ceramic icon found in the 1980s in Vinica, near Skopje, Northern Macedonia. It is also the first icon representing St. George as a snake-slayer.


After that, for almost a thousand years we find no depiction of Dog-headed St. Christopher. Yet his cult was continuous, churches were dedicated to him, he was mentioned in menologia. Most probably, his figure was found to be disturbing in later ages, and his pictures were replaced or repainted. Evidence of such a case can be found in the fresco of the Yaroslavl Cathedral, where the outlines of the former dog’s head emerge behind Christopher’s youthful human head.


In the meantime, the cult of the saint also spread to the West. It was probably first brought to Sicily and southern Italy by Byzantines fleeing the iconoclasm, and to southern Spain by north African Christians fleeing Arabs. From here it rapidly spread north, as evidenced by the 8th-century Latin martyr’s act cited above. But something changes. In the West, after the loss of the knowledge of the Greek language, no one reads Ctesias or Diodorus Siculus who cited him in abudance, thus, before the popularity of the Alexander Romance in the late Middle Ages, only few know about the dog-headed people. Christopher is portrayed as a giant, but his dog’s head is considered an exaggeration, and is replaced by a human head. They also give a new explanation for his name. The original Greek name refers to St. Paul’s statement that the Christian bears Christ within himself. The new Western legend, however, which was popularized from about 1260 on by the Legenda Aurea, says that the giant Christopher, who wanted to serve the most powerful lord, eventually starts to work as a ferryman at a river, and at one time he takes through it the child Christ, who carries the sphere of the world, so Christopher can barely carry him, in spite of his giant stature.

St. Christopher in a book of hours of Bruges, ca. 1520. The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.307, fol. 160v.

In Western Christianity, this depiction will be infinitely popular, especially because of the widespread belief that whoever saw the image of St. Christopher will not die that day (or, according to other opinions, will not die without sacraments). His giant figure was often painted on the outer wall of churches, and he became the patron saint of travelers. However, his stick continues to be a flowering or greenish tree, or a fruit-bearing palm, a survival of the blossoming stick of the original Orthodox icons.

Ráj duše, 1433-1500 k. Prague, National Library

Interestingly, when we again find depictions of Christopher in the East from the 16th century onwards, some icons import the new Western development, and place the child Jesus on the shoulders of the dog-headed Christopher.





The composition of these images is more or less similar to each other. St. Christopher stands in military uniform and with weapons, or in a long shirt as a martyr, turning to us, exposed to our veneration. He turns his head to the side: partly because it is easiest to depict a dog’s head in profile, and partly because he looks upwards, from where Christ or the divine hand blesses him or gives him a martyr’s crown. He is depicted on icons, frescoes, and on the gates of the iconostasis, as its guardian.

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Among the dog-headed St. Christophers we also find some which show two fingers, a characteristic gesture of the Old Believers. In fact, in 1722, the synod of the Russian Church, which at that time no longer considered the dog-headed Christopher as a symbol of the completeness of “all nations”, but only a superstitious and indecent representation, incompatible with the spirit of the new times, banned this representation. And for the Old Believers, which considered the leadership of the official church the Antichrist, this was a proof of the correctness of the traditional dog-headed icon.



A dialogue of apocryphal saints. Dog-headed St. Christopher and Lady Sophia (Wisdom) with her three daugters Faith, Hope and Love


However, in 1971, the Russian Synod abolished all prohibitions and anathemes against the Old Believers and their rites. And the other Orthodox churches had never banned the depiction of Dog-headed St. Christopher. The saint therefore continues to enjoy great popularity, especially in Greece. The Orthodox believer can choose from several icons of St Christopher: with a young man’s face, with the child Jesus on his shoulder, or with the good old dog’s head.


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