Christian Fish SymbolGeneral Information
The plethora of symbols and attributes used by the Romans contrasted sharply to the few, simple images used by the early Christians, who had to be circumspect in the face of religious persecution. On sacramental cups, seals, and lamps the Holy Spirit was symbolized by a dove and Christ by a fish (perhaps because at the time fish was one of the elements of the sacred meal) or by a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders (from Luke 15:3-7). The Savior was also represented by a monogram formed by combining the Greek letters chi and rho (XP), the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ.
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Editor's Note: I heard an interesting speculation regarding this subject, but one which has no confirmation and probably no possible confirmation. The claim starts with the observation that when two strangers would meet, neither really knew if the other was a Christian or someone who might turn them in to the Roman soldiers to be immediately killed. And so either one might rather casually use their toe to fidget around, not drawing any special attention from any Romans who might be nearby. A person might then easily draw out the simple outline of a fish in the dust or dirt. If the other person was NOT a Christian, they would not know what that meant and would simply attribute it to doodling. However, if the other person WAS a Christian, then the message would be passed. This seems credible because it seems one of the few possible reasonably safe ways to find out if others were Christians or not, in an environment where all Christians were expected to be killed as enemies.
Among the symbols employed by the primitive Christians, that of the fish ranks probably first in importance. While the use of the fish in pagan art as a purely decorative sign is ancient and constant, the earliest literary reference to the symbolic fish is made by Clement of Alexandria, born about 150, who recommends his readers (Paedagogus, III, xi) to have their seals engraved with a dove or a fish. Clement did not consider it necessary to give any reason for this recommendation, from which it may be safely be inferred that the meaning of both symbols was unnecessary. Indeed, from monumental sources we know that the symbolic fish was familiar to Christians long before the famous Alexandrian was born; in such Roman monuments as the Capella Greca and the Sacrament Chapels of the catacomb of St. Callistus, the fish was depicted as a symbol in the first decades of the second century.
The symbol itself may have been suggested by the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes or the repast of the seven Disciples, after the Resurrection, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:9), but its popularity among Christians was due principally, it would seem, to the famous acrostic consisting of the initial letters of five Greek words forming the word for fish (Ichthys), which words briefly but clearly described the character of Christ and His claim to the worship of believers: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, i.e. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. (See the discourse of Emperor Constantine, "Ad coetum Sanctorum" c. xviii.) It is not improbable that this Christian formula originated in Alexandria, and was intended as a protest against the pagan apotheosis of the emperors; on a coin from Alexandria of the reign of Domitian (81-96) this emperor is styled Theou Yios (Son of God).
The word Ichthys, then, as well as the representation of a fish, held for Christians a meaning of the highest significance; it was a brief profession of faith in the divinity of Christ, the Redeemer of mankind. Believers in this mystic Ichthys were themselves "little fishes", according to the well-known passage of Tertullian (De baptismo, c. 1): "we, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water".
The association of the Ichthys with the Eucharist is strongly emphasized in the epitaph of Abercius, the second century Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia, and in the somewhat later epitaph of Pectorius of Autun. Abercius tells us on the aforesaid monument that in his journey from his Asiatic home to Rome, everywhere on the way he received as food "the Fish from the spring, the great, the pure", as well as "wine mixed with water, together with bread". Pectorius also speaks of the Fish as a delicious spiritual nurture supplied by the "Saviour of the Saints". In the Eucharistic monuments this idea is expressed repeatedly in the pictorial form; the food before the banqueters is invariably bread and fish on two separate dishes. The peculiar significance attached to the fish in this relation is well brought out in such early frescoes as the Fractio Panis scene in the cemetery of St. Priscilla, and the fishes on the grass, in closest proximity to the baskets containing bread and wine, in the crypt of Lucina. (See SYMBOLISM OF THE EUCHARIST.)
The fish symbol was not, however, represented exclusively with symbols of the Eucharist; quite frequently it is found associated with such other symbols as the dove, the anchor, and the monogram of Christ. The monuments, too, on which it appears, from the first to the fourth century, include frescoes, sculptured representations, rings, seals, gilded glasses, as well as enkolpia of various materials. The type of fish depicted calls for no special observation, save that, from the second century, the form of the dolphin was frequently employed. The reason for this particular selection is presumed to be the fact that, in popular esteem, the dolphin was regarded as friendly to man.
Besides the Eucharistic frescoes of the catacombs a considerable number of objects containing the fish-symbol are preserved in various European museums, one of the most interesting, because of the grouping of the fish with several other symbols, being a carved gem in the Kircherian Museum in Rome. On the left is a T-form anchor, with two fishes beneath the crossbar, while next in order are a T-form cross with a dove on the crossbar and a sheep at the foot, another T-cross as the mast of a ship, and the good shepherd carrying on His shoulders the strayed sheep. In addition to these symbols the five letters of the word Ichthys are distributed round the border. Another ancient carved gem represents a ship supported by a fish, with doves perched on the mast and stern, and Christ on the waters rescuing St. Peter.
After the fourth century the symbolism of the fish gradually disappeared; representations of fishes on baptismal fonts and on bronze baptismal cups like those found at Rome and Trier, now in the Kircherian Museum, are merely of an ornamental character, suggested, probably by the water used in baptism.
Publication information Written by Maurice M. Hassett. Transcribed by Mary and Joseph P. Thomas. In memory of Elizabeth Kunneth The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VI. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, September 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York
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