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Basic Christian Iconography: the “Fish”

November 24th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

The fish symbol in ancient paganism was associated with “life”, the “womb”, the “Great Mother” and with the power of women to generate life.

Bread and Fish, Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.  Image captured from

Bread and Fish, Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.  Image captured from <http://www.jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols/images/fish_bread.jpg>

Fish images and fishing scenes in early Christian iconography have a wildly varied list of possible meanings. There is a wealth of scriptural stories that the fish image may allude to, among them: the calling of the apostles to be “fishers of men”(1), the miraculous catch of fish following the resurrection(2), Peter finding a coin in the mouth of a fish(3), and other references. But, the fish as a symbol on its own or with other non-narrative images is more allusive. It could be referring to a narrative such as the New Testament story of the multiplication of loaves and fish or it could be a stand-alone symbol for Christ. Third and fourth century writers noted that the Greek word for “fish” (ICHTHYS)(4) is a cryptogram on the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Therefore, the image of a fish, in some contexts, symbolizes Christ.

Some scholars hold that the symbol referred to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ and so early Christians used the fish symbol as a form of religious identification among themselves.

fish meal 150dpi

Christian Banquet Scene, Sarcophagus fragment. Vatican Inv. 31445 <www.rome101.com/Christian/Magician/>

The association of the fish with the Eucharist is highly probable given the evidence of an inscription left by the second century Bishop Abercius of Hierapolis in Phrygia, and in a somewhat later epitaph of Pectorius of Autun. On his trip to Rome Abercius was …everywhere provided as my food a fish of exceeding great size, and perfect, which a holy virgin drew with her hands from a fountain and this it [Faith] ever gives to its friends to eat, it having wine of great virtue, and giving it mingled with bread.(5) The bishop refers to the fish as the spiritual nourishment provided by the “Savior of the Saints.” He is, of course, describing the Eucharistic liturgy in veiled language, perhaps for security reasons.

Of course, there is the traditional association of the New Testament story of the multiplication of five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a multiple of people (to nourish life by feeding hungry people) with Jesus’ later discourse in John 6:26-58 of the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood in order to attain eternal life –referring to the Eucharist. We remember that fish were known in the wider culture as symbols of life.

The Eucharist is often symbolized in Catholic liturgical art by images of fish shown with shafts of wheat, loaves of bread and bunches of grapes.

First Communion Medal. http://www.catholicshop.co.za/pRPCR027/1st-Holy-Communion-Symbols-Cross-35mm-in-gold.aspx

First Communion Medal. http://www.catholicshop.co.za/pRPCR027/1st-Holy-Communion-Symbols-Cross-35mm-in-gold.aspx

Fish or fishing scenes on sarcophagi or on the fresco walls of the catacombs may also be symbolic of the sacrament of Baptism. Grouped on the walls with fish symbols suggesting a possible Christian theme of Baptism, are images of scriptural texts often associated with the sacrament(6). Literary evidence, other than biblical citations, also points to a baptismal association.

Anchor and fish, tomb slab from Catacomb of Domitilla, 3rd century A.D.  Because it secures a vessel, the anchor was regarded in ancient times as a symbol of safety. In this instance the anchor symbolizes Christ who is the sure hope of Christians, represented here by fish.

Anchor and Fish, tomb slab from Catacomb of Domitilla, 3rd century A.D. Because it secures a vessel, the anchor was regarded in ancient times as a symbol of safety. In this instance the anchor symbolizes Christ who is the sure hope of Christians, represented here by fish. <www.udel.edu/ArtHistory/nees/209/images/2-01.jpg>

Early Christian writers often called to mind images of water, fish, and fishing when discussing Baptism. Converts were commonly referred to as swimming fish caught by Christ or, alternatively, caught by the apostles and their successors (“fishers of men”). Sometimes decorated with images of fish, baptismal fonts were at times called “fish ponds.” Cyril of Jerusalem, instructing those about to be baptized, conjured the metaphor of fishing as well as Baptism’s imagery of death to rebirth in Christ: You are fish caught in the net of the church. Let yourself be taken alive: do not try to escape. It is Jesus who is playing you on his line, not to kill you, but by killing you, to make you alive.(7)

A modern use of the fish icon.

A modern use of the fish icon.<www.merry-christmas.com>

The fish symbol was the earliest symbol of Christianity. It eventually gave way, in the 5th century, to the cross as the primary symbol of Christianity. It was resurrected in popular culture by some Christian groups beginning in the mid-20th century.

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1. Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17

2. John 21:1

3. Matthew 17:27

4. In pagan beliefs, Ichthys was the offspring of the ancient Sea goddess Atargatis, and was known in various mythic systems under different titles or names.

5. Henri Leclercq, Inscription of Abercius, (The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 1, New York: Robert Appleton Company 1907) 22 Dec. 2008, Nov. 24 2008 19:33
<http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01040a.htm

6. Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, (New York, Routledge
2006) p48

7. Jensen 50

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3 Responses to “Basic Christian Iconography: the “Fish””

  1. avatar Diane Harris says:

    Hi Bernie,
    Very interesting post; thank you. I am confused however about the final image: “Modern Use of the fish symbol.” The fourth letter looks much more like a psi than an upsilon. And I believe it should be an upsilon for the word (h)uios (Son). If a psi is being used, what word is it supposed to be standing for? If you have the Jensen book you referenced, is there an explanation? Thanks, Diane

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    Ha! I apparently grabbed a defective fish icon off the internet. I replaced it with a different one. How’s that?

  3. avatar Diane Harris says:

    Better! Thanks, Bernie. The sigma looks a little funny but let’s use it anyway. 🙂 Diane


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