In the post on my visit to the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, I took a photograph of an icon with a dog’s head. At the time I merely commented on how bizarre this icon seemed to me. At the time, I did not think much about it.
In volume 2 of his book Orthodox Saints, George Poulos discusses St. Christopher Cynocephalus. The only St. Christopher I knew was the one who is depicted on medals carrying a child with the caption, “St. Christopher Protect Us.” Well, this is the same St. Christopher. Poulos explains that Christopher, whose original name was Reprobos, was ugly and repulsive. He was so ugly that his comrades called him Dogface. (Cynocephalus means “dog-head.”) His inner spiritual beauty was hidden by a hideous face. Actually painting a person with a dog’s head seems just a wee bit extreme.
Anyway, Christopher is known as the patron saint of travelers, but this is the Roman Catholic tradition. The Eastern Orthodox have no stories relating to Christopher as a traveler. However, the story of him carrying the child–who is actually the Christ Child–is known in the East. Christopher finds that he is actually carrying the weight of the world when he carries Jesus. Christopher lived during the reign of Emperor Decius, who had him executed on May 9, 255.
The explanation of why the saint is painted with a dog’s head still doesn’t warm me to the work. To me, a dog-headed icon is more kitsch than holy.
Poulos, George. Orthodox Saints: Spiritual Profiles for Modern Man, April 1 to June 30 (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1991), p. 101-102.