Once upon a time, there was a man of prodigious size and strength who was called Reprebus and was determined to discover the most mighty prince in the world. The first candidate was a Canaanite king, who received our pilgrim and made him a member of his court. Unfortunately, this particular king was afraid of the Devil; whenever his name was mentioned, the king made the sign of the cross on his forehead. Reprebus realized that the Devil was a more potent ruler than this king and went in search of him.
It did not take long for the two of them to meet. It happened in the desert, where the Devil was leading a group of soldiers. He was fierce and terrible to look at, but Reprebus was not afraid. As soon as he realized he had finally found the one he was looking for, he declared his willingness to serve him and joined his company. Once more he was disappointed. They were marching along a highway when they came to a cross erected on the side of the road. To his great chagrin, Reprebus saw the Devil abandon the road and head towards the wilderness. He asked him why he turned away from the cross, at which point he was informed that the Satan was afraid of a man named Christ who had been crucified. It was evident that the Devil was not the most powerful king, so Reprebus left him in search of Christ.
Eventually, he met a hermit who suggested that the best way to serve Christ was through fasting and prayer. Our weary traveler seemed disinclined to follow such a path, so the hermit offered him an alternative; he could assist people to cross a river where the swift and strong current had claimed many lives. One day a child appeared and expressed the desire to cross the river. Reprebus took him on his shoulder and started walking but he was soon struggling under tremendous weight. It was almost a miracle that he didn’t collapse midstream, so when he finally made it to the opposite shore, he turned to the child and noted that the whole world would not have been as heavy on his shoulder as he was. At that point, the child informed him that he did not just carry the world on his shoulder but Him who made it.
Can’t touch this
Christopher (Bearer-of-Christ), as he would be known from now on, became His servant and comforted Christians across the land. One day he arrived in Lycia, where the local king demanded that he sacrifices to the pagan gods. When Christopher refused, the king attempted to entice him to reject Christ by sending him two beautiful women. Obviously, the scheme failed miserably; the women even accepted Christianity. The king was enraged and ordered that Christopher should be put to death.
That was easier said than done. Iron rods and an iron helmet heated in the fire and placed on his head failed to inflict any damage. The torturers then produced an iron chair and bound Christopher into it, before lighting a fire underneath it. The chair crumbled like wax. Four hundred bowmen were assembled and shot their arrows at the saint as he was lashed to a pillar. All the arrows hung ineffectually in midair, except for one that turned around and struck the king in the eye. At that point, Christopher seems to have decided that it was time to offer his life for Christ. He was taken to a place of execution where he prayed and then he was beheaded. But before he died, he told the king to use his blood as a paste to recover his sight. This miraculous cure forced the cruel tyrant to recognize the holiness of the saint and the power of Christ; henceforth he issued a decree that whoever blasphemed against God or Saint Christopher would lose his head.
A race of dog-headed people
So far, the story of Saint Christopher is fairly straightforward. During the Middle Ages, he became a popular figure who supported travelers and offered protection against sudden death, so he was represented on a large scale on the gates of cities, churches, or bridges. At some point though, he acquired the face of a dog and his origins were traced to a region at the edge of the civilized world, a land of cannibals and dog-headed peoples.
According to ancient authors, the Cynocephali inhabited the furthest reaches of India and the deserts of Africa. They dressed in animal skins, ate raw flesh, and had no language of their own, barking at each other like dogs. Nevertheless, they were capable of understanding human speech, but could only respond either by barking or making gestures with their hands. Despite their primitive society, they were very fond of justice.
Christian thinkers accepted the authority of the ancient sources on the subject of the Cynocephali but debated whether they could be converted to Christianity. Augustine of Hippo claimed that only rational beings could be converted since rationality indicated a descendant of Adam (irrespective of one’s strange appearance). The language was the main attribute of rationality, it was therefore inconceivable that the Cynocephali, who communicated through barking sounds and hand gestures, were rational beings; on the contrary, they were beasts and therefore not included in God’s plan for human salvation.
The Middle Ages were fascinated with the Cynocephali. Latin and early English versions of the story of Alexander the Great included an account of a fierce battle fought between the Macedonians and the dog-headed men, who were repelled by a volley of arrows. The Wonders of the East, a medieval collection of eastern legends, portrayed them as beasts with long hair, sharp tusks, and a fiery breath, who inhabited wealthy cities in the south of Egypt. In the late eighth century, the History of the Lombards depicted the Cynocephali as a race of beasts that lived in the far north of Europe and tended to drink the blood of their fallen enemies.
Face only a mother could love
But how did Saint Christopher end up with the face of a dog? A medieval Life of Saint Christopher from the tenth century describes him as a man with the head of a dog. His hair was wild and shone like gold; his eyes burned like starts, while bestial tusks protruded from his mouth. It was a face that only a mother could love. Emperors, on the other hand, seem to have been utterly disgusted by it; Decius fell from his throne in terror when Christopher entered his audience hall. As he was being taken to the place of his martyrdom, Saint Christopher prayed to God to be given the ability to speak. God appeared in the likeness of a man surrounded by light, opened his mouth and blew into it; henceforth the saint was able to speak like a human. And then he lost his head.
The Cynocephali were a popular subject in the Byzantine Empire and the episode of the battle of Alexander the Great against this monstrous race inspired sculptures that appeared in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, as well as more humble works of art for private use. A very popular saint, Mercurius, was closely associated with the dog-headed monsters; two of them devoured his grandfather but as they were about to eat his father an angel appeared and surrounded them with a ring of fire. The monsters repented and became companions of Mercurius (and his father) into battle.
The depiction of Saint Christopher as a dog-head seems to have been based on an old folk tradition that was condemned by the official church. A Synaxarium from Constantinople, a compilation of hagiographies, recognizes the existence of strange and monstrous tales about the glorious Saint Christopher (namely that he had a dog face and came from a race that ate human flesh) but rejects them with the rational explanation that the saint had a particularly ugly face, hence its comparison to the face of a dog. Other Byzantine texts agree that he came from the nation of the Cynocephali but note that he himself was human, albeit hideous and unattractive. Icons from Cappadocia and Kastoria in the 11th and 12th centuries depict him as a beardless youth with a shield and armor. During the reign of the Palaiologos dynasty (1261-1453) the saint appears holding a cross or carrying the Christ Child on his shoulders. In the 16th century, he usually has a beard since the artists seem to have been influenced by a western European engraving that circulated broadly in the East.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, though, things changed. Saint Christopher suddenly began to appear with the head of a dog in frescoes from Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. In the 1740s there was a fresco in a chapel of the Monastery of Great Lavra that depicted the saint of dog-headed. It was a theme common enough in Mount Athos to draw the condemnation of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, an ascetic monk and philosopher who blamed “some ignorant hagiographers” in the 17th and 18th century who seem to have misunderstood the true meaning of the word “dog-faced” in the life of Saint Christopher and interpreted it literally. The old Orthodox painting tradition tended to be forgotten and folk artists, partly inspired by stories that must have been circulating in the East since antiquity, created these incredible images of the saint with the features of a mythical beast.