By John Sanidopoulos
Often when I read about the iconography of Saint Christopher in which his head has the form of a dog, known as cynocephaly, it is stated that this depiction goes back to Byzantine times. However, those who have actually studied the evolution of this icon clearly state that if this was true, we do not have an image of Saint Christopher from Byzantine times, nor is it anywhere mentioned that such images of the Saint existed in Byzantine times. In fact, the image of Saint Christopher as dog-headed is of rather recent origin, Post-Byzantine, during the Ottoman era, no earlier than the late 17th or early 18th century.
In the early Greek Lives of Saint Christopher, it is said he was captured in combat against tribes dwelling to the west of Egypt in Cyrenaica. He belonged to a tribe called the Marmaritae, which was a land of cannibals who are described as being of enormous size and cynocephalos, or dog-headed. Early Latin translations did not always render a literal translation of the original Greek term "dog-headed", and some seem to have translated it as "dog-like" (canineus). This was amended to read "Canaanite" (Cananeus) as time progressed since it was obvious that he could not really have been "dog-like".
In the 10th century Synaxarion of Constantinople, Saint Christopher is described as being "wild and fearsome looking", indicating that the Byzantine understanding of him being literally dog-headed was not in the consciousness of the Church. This is why the early depictions of Saint Christopher during Byzantine times depict him as young and beardless, such as in 11th century Cappadocia. In the 12th century he was depicted as young and beardless, but dressed as a soldier, such as in the Church of the Holy Unmercenaries in Kastoria. During the Palaiologan era he is still depicted as young and beardless and as a soldier, but now he carries the cross of a martyr or bears Christ on his shoulder, such as in Tarnovo, Bulgaria, Mount Athos and Patmos. At the end of the 15th century Saint Christopher now has a beard and is carrying the infant Christ on his shoulder, at the Church of the Apostles Peter and Paul in Tarnovo. Theophanes the Cretan also depicted him like this in Anapausa Monastery at Meteora. This tradition continued at Mount Athos and elsewhere into the 16th century and early 17th century.
In brief, the civilized inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world had long been accustomed to describe those who lived on the edge of their world and beyond as the strange inhabitants of stranger lands, cannibals, dog-headed peoples and worse. So when the author of the original account of the martyrdom of Saint Christopher described his origin from the land of cannibals and dog-headed peoples he was merely signifying that he came from the edge of the civilized world as the inhabitants of the Roman Empire saw it, and the Marmaritae did indeed inhabit such a peripheral region. He was not to realize that later generations would misinterpret this common cultural metaphor in an entirely literal fashion. However, there is an iconographic tradition of depicting these people with the head of a dog, but this was never done for any of the saints, not even Saint Christopher.
Medieval writers often took such language literally. The German bishop and poet Walter of Speyer (967–1027) in 983 portrayed in prose and verse Saint Christopher as a giant of a cynocephalic species in the land of the Chananeans (the "canines" of Canaan in the New Testament) who ate human flesh and barked. Eventually, according to Walter, Christopher met the Christ child at a river, regretted his former behavior, and received baptism. With this he was rewarded with a human appearance, whereupon he devoted his life to Christian service and became an athlete of God, one of the soldier-saints.
According to Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, however, in a footnote to the Life of Saint Christopher in his Synaxarion, where Christopher is described as "dog-headed", he writes: "Dog-headed means here that the Saint was ugly and disfigured in his face, and not that he completely had the form of a dog, as many uneducated painters depict him. His face was human, like all other humans, but it was ugly and monstrous and wild. God created one form and one nature for all humans, and if some slightly alter from others, they are not altogether dissimilar. That there are many nations which were and are cannibals, is testified by ancient historians. Even now those called Kalmyks who are in the kingdom of Russia, these are cannibals."
Based on all the above information, the origin of the depiction of Saint Christopher as dog-headed was in the late 17th or early 18th century, by what Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite calls "uneducated painters," who took the description of Saint Christopher literally instead of figuratively, according to an older iconographic tradition where foreigners who lived outside the boundary of the empire were depicted as dog-headed.