I have seen icons of St. Christopher (Αγιος Χριστοφορος) with a Dog-Head and wanting to know officially if somewhere the Orthodox they see this as canon. It's something that has come up multiple times in orthodox groups where I am discussing icons.

I understand why the icon may depict him this way as it's explained in many places, but my question is rather if the Orthodox church or church leaders recognizes that depiction as canon for his icons.

On the OrthodoxWiki page for this is says the following:

....There are some rare icons that depict this martyr with the head of a dog. Such images may carry echoes of the Egyptian dog-headed god, Anubius; and Christopher pictured with a dog's head, is not generally supported by the Orthodox Church. However, these images have made him especially popular among the Roman Catholics who have created many stories to explain his "cynocephalatic" appearance. [citation needed]

But of course there isn't really a citation. Since it says not generally supported it doesn't really explain.

3 Answers 3


I was very surprised to find the first part of this answer, and am excited to share it.

What canon?

Your source's wording of "not generally supported," which is so unsatisfactory to you, is actually worded perfectly. Because it appears there is no (written) iconographical canon in the Orthodox Church.

From the Orthodox Arts Journal (emphasis mine):

Despite its heavy (Roman) legalistic and imperial heritage, the Byzantine Church, as it seems, never attempted a legal codification of its artistic production. The only area where we might find such a thing is in (post-Byzantine) painters’ manuals, which—at some point—actually gave the impression that “Greek” art was executed primarily through obeying prescriptions. However, apart from most of the texts that deal with technical issues, the instructions for the practice of painting are “general canons”— applicable to quite diverse stylistic solutions. Even in the most famous manual, compiled by Dionysius of Fourna, for example, where there is a recipe for mixing the colors for painting the face, and norms for the proportions of the human figure, the author subverts any concept of a rule, since he states that this is only one among many possibilities (although he usually starts with the way of Panselinos). As soon as the reader runs into prescriptions for painting in some other style—Cretan or Muscovite, for example—it becomes clear that the prescriptions are not binding. Thus, apart from the most general rules, for instance, that the icon should be painted in layers (usually from darker to lighter tones), it is hard to find anything more specific in those books. More precisely, we cannot find there any set of direct prescriptions on producing an icon that would be “canonical” in the narrow sense.

Of course (as the article goes on to say), just because there is no written word tradition does not mean there is no written visual tradition. Of course there is. We have burial icons surviving from the 3rd century. If your icon looks different from everything preceding you in Orthodox Christian art, perhaps consider why your style is so important that it needs to depart from those who have gone before you.

Specific Icons

Some icons are so controversial that they merit specific censure from a church. A 1667 Synod of Moscow forbade depicting God the Father, although plenty of Russian churches (hardly ever the Greek ones, ironically) do depict "the Ancient of Days"...some people argue that that is different, others don't. I myself have been in a monastery in the United States(!) with such a depiction.

Similarly, a Holy Synod in 1722 banned depicting St. Christopher with a dog head. However, this should be understood in the context of Peter the Great's modernizing efforts and have no real theological basis. They remained popular among Old Believers, and in 1971 the restrictions on Old Believer icons was lifted.

So it appears that there are no canons; there does exist a line of tradition, and it's no longer anathematized. As long as it is not done mockingly, why not?

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    Thank you, I very much appreciate this answer. I wasn't trying to come off as rude in my posts and comments, but rather was relaying the sentiment from others at my Orthodox class regarding this icon. I recently had a conversation regarding the "the Ancient of Days" with my spiritual father and appreciate you adding that as it's relevant. Apr 21, 2022 at 2:58
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    Oh yes, I wasn't implying that you or anybody else was mocking! And I personally am not very comfortable with the Ancient of Days thing. When I visited the monastery my husband (a recent convert) saw it at the very end of liturgy, and asked me "Is that...?!" and I tugged on his arm to lead him out and said "I'll explain later!" 😂
    – Alex
    Apr 22, 2022 at 3:02

Is the Dog-Headed icon of Saint Christopher canon in the Orthodox Church?

If you go by Wikipedia the answer seems to be no.

Saint Christopher (Cynocephaly)

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, certain icons covertly identify Saint Christopher with the head of a dog. Such images may carry echoes of the Egyptian dog-headed god, Anubis. Christopher pictured with a dog's head is not generally supported by the Orthodox Church, as the icon was proscribed in the 18th century by Moscow.

The roots of that iconography lie in a hagiographic narrative set during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, which tell of a man named Reprebus, Rebrebus or Reprobus (the "reprobate" or "scoundrel") being captured by Roman forces fighting against tribes dwelling to the west of Egypt in Cyrenaica and forced to join the Roman numerus Marmaritarum or "Unit of the Marmaritae", which suggests an otherwise-unidentified "Marmaritae" (perhaps the same as the Marmaricae Berber tribe of Cyrenaica). He was reported to be of enormous size, with the head of a dog instead of a man, both apparently being typical of the Marmaritae. He and the unit were later transferred to Syrian Antioch, where bishop Peter of Attalia baptised him and where he was martyred in 308. It has also been speculated that this Byzantine depiction of St. Christopher as dog-headed may have resulted from a misreading of the Latin term Cananeus (Canaanite) as caninus, that is, "canine".

The late 10th century German bishop and poet Walter of Speyer portrayed St. Christopher as a giant of a cynocephalic species in the land of the Chananeans (Canaan in the New Testament) who ate human flesh and barked. Eventually, Christopher met the Christ child, regretted his former behavior, and received baptism. He, too, was rewarded with a human appearance, whereupon he devoted his life to Christian service and became an Athleta Christi, one of the military saints.

Some sources claim this to be a popular iconic feature, in Catholic circles, yet I have never heard of it until now! This form of imagery is quite rare.

I do not think it would ever be become canon in either Catholic of Orthodox Churches.

Even the source mentioned in the question does not give a cited source or linked reference.

If it is not generally supported by the Orthodox Church, it can not be canon.

  • The quote from Wikipedia similar to what is on the OrthodoxWiki, but that being said it's still doesn't give a proper source. I'm interested more in what church fathers have said or a source to the Russian Orthodox church proscribing the icon formally. I understand why it wouldn't be considered canon and just want to dig deeper to understand more. It may require asking some church fathers online or consoling the local seminary and relaying that information here. Apr 1, 2022 at 16:02
  • @MaterialFuture I would be amazed if the Church Fathers have said anything on this subject matter.
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 1, 2022 at 17:57

Yes, according to the very detailed discussion on the Orthodox Arts Journal.

Source: Understanding The Dog-Headed Icon of St-Christopher

History and special aspects of hagiography icons in brief

Source: History and Special Aspects of Hagiography Icons in Brief

Icons blessed by Metropolitan Siluan Siberia Strijewski used in temples and churches within Russia.

Source: Icon "St. Christopher the Dog-Head” (Orthodox)

  • If "yes, according to the very detailed discussion on the Orthodox Arts Journal," could you please add a quote that states that the Dog-Headed icon of Saint Christopher canon in the Orthodox Church?
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 3, 2022 at 15:06
  • Our icons and iconostasis in many churches and temples of Russia. I suggest you contact the people of the last source link I provided, and ask them to contact the source of the St. Christopher icon for verification who who gave their blessing and which churches and temples have their icons at: worthpoint.com/page/about-contact.
    – user52134
    Apr 3, 2022 at 15:40
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    Thank you for these sources, unfortunately I was unable to find if it were considered canon. That being said, I will use that link you sent over to contact whomever in regards to this icon. Apr 5, 2022 at 15:16
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    @JasonAlls I intend to write a full answer on this, but unfortunately just because an icon exists does not mean that it is canonical!
    – Alex
    Apr 20, 2022 at 16:05
  • Or rather, to go with my incoming answer, just because an icon exists doesn't mean it's a good idea ;)
    – Alex
    Apr 20, 2022 at 16:11

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