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Bible Encyclopedias
Fish in Christian Symbolism.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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Fish, Henry Clay, D.D.
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Of all the symbols used by the early Christians, none was more widely used than that of the fish. It was employed as a metaphor in the writings of the fathers of the Church, and was graven or painted as a secret sign upon monuments of all kinds. We do not speak, of course, of the fish introduced into arabesque ornamentation, or into the scenes drawn from the New Testament, nor of those cases where it was used upon tombs to indicate the calling of the deceased, but of those cases where it was used independently, and manifestly in a purely symbolical sense. Numberless examples are extant of its being thus used on tombstones, rings, seals, and amulets. It manifestly had two significations, sometimes referring to Christ, and sometimes to the Christian Church.

I. Referring to Christ, it was in familiar use as early as the 2d century. Its significance was drawn from the fact that the letters of ἰχθύς, the Greek word for fish, form the initials of the acrostic Ι᾿ησοῦς, Χριστός, Θεοῦ, Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).

The complete acrostic is found upon but one monument, a tombstone. It is explained in the writings of St. Augustine. Sometimes the entire word was used; in other cases there were but parts of it. The figure of a ash was very frequently cut or painted to represent the Saviour. Fishes of glass or of bronze were often hung upon the necks of believers as amulets. Seals and rings often had other symbols also, as the anchor, the cross, and the A Ω . The fish was especially used on baptismal fonts and on the walls of baptisteries. A ship resting on a fish was used to indicate that Christ supports the Church.

II. The fish represents the Christian in all artistic presentations of those parables where the apostles are spoken of as fishers of men. The fish, attached to a hook and line, with or without a fisherman, always refers to the Christian, as do those representations of a number of fishes on pavements of churches, and on those tombstones where funeral inscriptions, as injrace, are added. Often two fishes are given, one on each side of an anchor or a cross. Many interpretations are given of this, the best established being the one that considers them as referring to the Jews and Gentiles, though much weight is attached to the interpretation which considers the two fishes to allude to the two covenants, the Jewish and the Christian. The baptisteries were therefore sometimes called piscinee. Tertullian speaks of Christians as accustomed to please themselves with the name pisciculi, "fishes," to denote that they were born again into Christ's religion by water. He says, Nos piscicui secundum ἰχθύν, nostrum Jesum Christun, in aqua nascimur (De Bapt. ch. i).

The use of the fish as a symbol ceased almost entirely with the death of Constantine the Great, though examples are foundo6f it as late as the 5th or 6th century.-Rossi, De Christianis Monumentis ΙΧΘΥΝ ex" hibentibus (Par. 1855); Martigny, Dictionnaire des Antiquits Chretienanes (Paris, 1865); Piper, Die christlice Kunst; Becker, Die Darstellung Jesu Christiunter dem Bilde des Pisches' (Bresla-, 1866, 8vo); Didron, Christi/as Iconography, i, 344; Bingham, Orig. Eccles. bk. i, ch. i, § 2- '

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Fish in Christian Symbolism.'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​f/fish-in-christian-symbolism.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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