January 14th 2023

“Agnus Dei”, 1635-40, Zurbarán, Prado. 

This is no ordinary lamb – it is a merino lamb.  A glance at labels in any clothes shop today will tell you that merino wool is expensive.  It was very expensive at the time of Zurbarán, and Spain had a monopoly on its production.  Merino wool is much finer than other wool and garments made from it lighter and more delicate.  This astounding painting of a bound merino lamb is intended neither as a demonstration of Zubarán’s consumate skill as a painter, or to promote an important Spanish export, or even to arouse in (non-vegetarianan) viewers the promise of succulent flavour, (to misquote the Prado’s description).   This is the lamb without blemish of which the scriptures spoke.  It is the male lamb, one year old, of the Book of Exodus (Ex 12:5), and to which St Peter referred, when he wrote “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without spot or blemish” (1 Pt 1:19).  In the religious fervour of Counter Reformation Spain, this symbolic representation of Christ as the Lamb of God would have been obvious. Everything about this painting is there to strengthen the viewer’s sense of encounter with the living lamb. Those who have seen this life-size image (38 X 62 cm) will have experienced how powerful is the sense that this is a real lamb.  The animal’s thick wool is rendered in a highly naturalistic style. But the artist uses brilliant white pigment for the wool and sets it against a darkened austere background.  The lamb is placed on a slab,  that might be equally serve as a butcher’s bench or an altar of sacrifice.  I do not view the animal at a distance, as perhaps I might in a field with its shepherd, who might be the youthful King David or one watching his flock by night at Bethlehem.  I see the creature close up and so, at least in my ears, the words of the Baptist from today’s gospel passage ring:  “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” I feel the force of that word “Behold!”  But more than this in the brightness of his fine wool, I recognise the light which shines in the darkness, which darkness cannot overcome.  The Prado description notes that the way this lamb is bound recalls a famous statue of the martyr St Cecelia in Rome. The viewer knows that in the binding we see Christ who becomes as the “lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth” (Is 53:7).  In the fineness of his wool which we can inspect at close range is his purity, the one like us in all things but sin. And its softness we are reminded of his tender mercy for those who go astray.   The realism with which this lamb is painted is also moving because it is a reminded of how in Christ the Almighty took our human flesh and blood. Finally, I notice that this lamb is not dead, but is alive. As I gaze I might almost see the animal’s wool move as its heart beats.  This  is the heart that beats in love for each of us, though we are sinners and do not merit such extravagant love.


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

Read more