Fish in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian mosaics (Megiddo mosaics 5)

In a recent email, one reader asked about the two fish depicted in the Megiddo mosaics, and wondered whether there may be any connection to astrology and pisces. I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss some examples of sea-creatures in Greco-Roman art and to post a few photos (or links to photos) to illustrate (when else might I have the opportunity to use photos of fish?).

It is very true that there are other mosaics in which two fish are depicted in a similar manner in reference to pisces, but in the context of other signs of the zodiac. See, for instance, the two fish depicted alongside other signs of the zodiac in a third-century mosaic now in the Bardo Museum in Tunisia (also described here), or the two fish in the mosaic from a synagogue at Hammat Tiberias in the Galilee (another photo here; fourth-fifth century CE). The latter is just one among the examples of the zodiac in Jewish synagogue art (see, for instance, the description of the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic here).

Setting aside astrological symbols specifically, fish and other sea creatures were also common within Greco-Roman (“pagan”) art in other ways. Here I have posted a few photos I took in the British museum. Some are focussed on the fish themselves, as in the early second-century mosaic with a lobster and fish from Papalonia, near Rome (above). Other mosaics depict actual hunting and fishing scenes, as in the third century mosaic from North Africa (right). In still other cases fish are depicted in scenes of abundant food, as in the first or second century mosaic from Carthage, likely from a dining-room (triclinium), which depicts a basket of fish alongside a basket of fruit (see below).

Quite well known, of course, is the fact that early Christians attached special significance to the symbol of the fish, which may directly relate to the Christian mosaics which have been uncovered at Megiddo. There are numerous stories involving fish in the gospels, with the most obvious being Jesus’ multiplication of the fish and loaves to feed thousands. The disciples, some of whom were literally fishermen, are characterized as fishers of people in the gospels as well. Gradually, the fish also became associated with other specifically Christian rituals, including the thanksgiving meal (eucharist) and baptism. Tertullian, for instance, speaks of Christians as fish following the chief fish (ΙΧΘΥΣ) Jesus Christ in connection with baptism: “But we, being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish, begin our life in the water, and only while we abide in the water are we safe and sound” (On Baptism 1; trans by Ernest Evans, online here). Tertullian may here be alluding to the fact that the Greek word for “fish”, ΙΧΘΥΣ, was used by some Christians as an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”, with each letter representing part of this name / title (cf. Sibylline Oracles 8:217-250). Fish commonly appear in Christian funerary art of the third and following centuries, sometimes alongside other symbols which were given a Christian meaning, including the anchor. This Christian understanding of the symbol may be primary in the Megiddo case (if no other zodiacal symbols are found). Yet it is worth mentioning the possibility that the (non-Christian?) artist hired to create the mosaic may well have had in his mind the model of pisces as commonly depicted in other mosaics.

For further discussion of fish in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian art, see Erwin R. Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period and Graydon Snyder’s Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine.

2 thoughts on “Fish in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian mosaics (Megiddo mosaics 5)

  1. Benner

    Dear Professor Harland,

    This might be outside of your realm, but do you know the meaning of a six pointed design from The Second Temple period?

    My website pictures this design:

    The symbol is known to art historians as a simple geometric design, but it has been used as part of the Christian culture since the time of Jesus. Prior to Jesus this design was Judaic, and can be found in the ruins of the Gamla Synagogue and ossuaries from pre-Roman destruction of Jerusalem.

    Best regards,
    Craig Benner

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