The Fish Symbol: two Fish Motifs in Early Christian Pula


The St Mary Formosa basilica in Pula was raised during the time of Maximianus, a native of Istria who held the office of archbishop in Ravenna (546–556). Its polychrome mosaic pavements depicted Christian themes, represented in simple, stylised geometric motifs. The mosaics impart a sense of the mystic atmosphere of the Mediterranean coast. Thus, the faithful would have approached in pious humility Christ’s symbolic vineyard and a depiction of the sea in which we see the fish motif.

Early Christian Fish Symbolism

 The fish motif is one of the oldest and best known symbols of the early Christian era. The significance of the Christian concept of the fish is emphasised in the Latin and Greek patristic literature. Tertullian (ca 160–ca 240) likened the Christians to fish; like Christ, born in water. The fish symbolises the Christ, and the faithful believer, having achieved salvation through baptism. Clement of Alexandria (ca 150–ca 215) recommends as appropriate that Christian men use the fish symbol for their signet rings.

His disciple Origen (185–253) emphasised that the fish was a symbol of the Christ. Aurelius Augustinus (Augustine of Hippo) (354–430) held that a sincere worshiper was akin to a good fish, confirming that the fish denotes the Christ. He recounts the mystic acrostic attributed to a Sibyl prophetess in which the symbolic concept of the fish (Greek ἰχθύς: ikhthys) is an acronym of Jesus (Ιησούς) Christ (Χριστός) Son of God (Θεού υιός) and Saviour (Σωτήρ). Thus, the fish symbol in the early Christian cryptic language is an ideogram that represents the Christ.




Fish in Early Christian Art

As a symbolic motif of early Christian art, the fish was a secret sign (cryptogram) in the Christian community. We find depictions of fish from the crypto-Christian period at Roman graves (3rd c.). A grave stela in Rome bears the inscription ΙΧΘΥΣ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ ("fish of life") with a pair of fish and an anchor. From the St Sebastian catacombs we find an epitaph with the image of fish and anchors, and in the Catacomb of Priscilla an image of a fish follows the name of the deceased, interpreted as Alexander in [Christo]. In the Catacomb of Callixtus the inscription has a fully interpreted acronym ΙΧΘΥΣ, and a fresco with the fish motif and a basket of bread.

We find a naturalistic depiction of fish (4th c.), with the interpolated colonettes of an altar, in the mosaic pavement of the hall of an antiquity period residence in Poreč at which a Christian community gathered (domus ecclesiae). The mosaic pavement of the basilica in Aquileia features a fishing scene with a wealth of marine fauna, and a scene from the Old Testament parable of Jonah (4th c.). Many similar naturalistic images of a variety of marine fauna in antiquity period villas are primarily associated with home remodelling, but were also suitable in emphasising the theological significance of fish.

This Christian symbol was also displayed in the period following the imperial edicts, when Christianity was openly preached. Fishes were depicted, for example, in the mosaic pavements of sacral complexes in Treviso (4th c.), Parma (4th c.), Amphipolis, Heraclea Lyncestis, Stobi, and Nicopolis (5th c.). Alongside the altar of the sanctuary in Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee we find a depiction of two fish and a basket with bread (5th/6th c.), and of a fish in Kelibia in Tunisia (baptistery, 6th c.). In Ravenna we find the image of a fish in the mosaic pavement (San Severo, 6th c.), and an especially interesting relief on the ambos (cathedral, 2nd half of the 6th c.), with a depiction of symbolic animals arranged in rows (lambs at the top, followed by birds-of-paradise and deer, and fish at the bottom).





Fig. 1 Poreč: fragment of mosaic pavement (4th c.) (from: Prelog 2004).

Fig. 2 St Mary Formosa basilica: position of the find of mosaic pavement (Gnirs 1902).







Fish and the Sea at the Basilica of St Mary Formosa

A drawing by A. Gnirs (1902) of a part of the mosaic pavement in the nave of the basilica of St Mary Formosa shows a preserved section with the image of a fish. A tree intertwined ribbons motif forms alternating large and small round medallions, with the gaps containing fish and stylised vegetal motifs. Similar intertwined compositions have been found in Solin (the northern basilica and Kapljuč, 5th c.), Pula (the cathedral, 6th c.), and Ravenna (Sant’Apollinare in Classe, 6th c.), and with fish imagery in Vrsar (4th c.), Poreč (the Euphrasian basilica, 6th c.), and at Casaranello (Santa Maria della Croce, 6th c.).

Fish symbolism may also be read, indirectly, in the mosaic of one of the aisles of the St Mary Formosa basilica, where one of the fields is filled out with a grid formed by net of small arches. In the context of early Christian symbolism, and because of its scale-like appearance (squama), this antiquity period geometric motif formed of an overlapping pattern, like the pattern that depicts the feathers of a (bird-of-paradise) peacock (opus pavonaceum), may represent a depiction of the scaly surface of a fish. The motif is found in early Christian art, e.g., a plaque in the catacombs of Rome (Agnes of Rome, 4th c.), and at altars with gratings at which the faith was confessed (fenestella confessionis) as a decorative latticework (transenna) for mystic communication with the relics of martyrs and saints, e.g., at Rome (Sant’Alessandro) and Milan (Sant’Ambrogio), from the 5th c. We see the same decoration on altar rails (solid panel or latticework) e.g., in Ravenna (Sant’Agata Maggiore, 6th c.), Salona (Marusinac, Kapljuč), Galovac (Crkvina, 6th c.), or in window latticework, e.g., Pula (cathedral, 5th c.) and in Omišalj on the island of Krk (Mirine, 5th/6th c.). A similar motif is depicted in mosaics, e.g., in Pula (St Thomas, 4th/5th c.), Ližnjan (Kuje, 5th c.), Muline on the island of Ugljan (memorial shrine (memoria), 4th/5th c.), Salona (Kapljuč, 5th c.), Grado (Piazza della Corte, 4th/5th c.), Jesolo (San Giovanni Evangelista, 6th c.), Poreč (memoria, 6th c.), Heraclea Lyncestis (baptistery, 5th c.), Ohrid (Lin, 5th/6th c.), and at Casaranello (Santa Maria della Croce, 6th c.).

In the mosaic pavement of the north aisle at the St Mary Formosa basilica we see a stylised depiction of the sea (again, scaly and shimmering) as an undulating geometric pattern of alternating rows of peltae (a Greek crescent-shaped shield). The repetition of a uniform undulating pattern creates the illusion of the surface of the sea, i.e., the undulating impression created by the gentle movement of the sea on sandy shores. The Hellenistic pelta pattern developed as an artistic motif in particular at antiquity period villas in Italy, the western provinces, the north of Africa, and later in the Christian churches. This undulating motif is very effective in mosaic pavements, e.g., in Grado (Santa Eufemia, 6th c.), Poreč (memoria, 6th c.), Salona (Kapljuč, late 4th c., and the consignatorium, 5th c.), Ravenna (Theodoric’s palace, 6th c.), Forli (Meldola, 6th c.), Jesolo (San Giovanni Evangelista, 6th c.), and Trento (San Vigilio, 6th c.).

Fig. 3 St Mary Formosa basilica, nave: drawing of the mosaic (Gnirs 1902).

Fig. 4 St Mary Formosa basilica, nave: fragment of mosaic pavement.






Fig. 5
Mary Formosa basilica, aisle: mosaic pavement with fish scale pattern.

 Fig. 6 A detail of fish scales.








Pula, cathedral: latticework window above the altar (5th c.).

Fig. 8 St Mary Formosa basilica, north aisle: fragment of the mosaic pavement..







Fig. 9 St Mary Formosa basilica, north aisle: drawing of the mosaic pavement (Gnirs 1902).

Fig. 10 St Mary Formosa basilica, aisle: conceptual reconstruction of the mosaic pavement





Panel with the Depiction of a Fish

A section of a panel with the image of a fish in relief, and a section of a pilaster with an inscription concerning the dedication of a basilica (5th c.), were recovered in 1882 in the course of excavation work in the area facing the St Francis church in Pula. The panel and pilaster may have come from a single altar screen from a possible nearby church. The Franciscan monastery, namely (its St John chapel), has an antiquity period mosaic with a subsequently interpolated cross, indicating the possible presence of an oratory of an early Christian community.

It may be that the stone panel originally bore the depiction of a school of fish (fish pond) as we see on plutei (4th/5th c.) from the basilica at the Crkvine site (Bugojno). The plutei are for the most part decorated with Christian symbolic messages on one side (the side facing the congregation). Our panel with a fish image in relief has a cross in a disc depicted on the other side. The disc represents the invincible solar aspect (Sol Invictus) of the Christ’s divine person. The ring with wavy line encircling the cross also represents the victor’s laurel crown (corona triumphalis) celebrating the Christ. It appears that the relief work on both sides was carved by a single artisan. It may be that an antiquity period panel with a pagan depiction of fish was Christianised with the interpolation of a cross. Another possibility is that a cross was subsequently interpolated into a fish relief from the crypto-Christian period. When the integral panel was no longer used in a sacral function, the fish motif was extracted and the fragment used as a fishing-inspired decoration.

• • •

The fish motif is found on late antiquity period items (oil lamps, vessels, spoons) and jewellery (finger rings, gemmae) and does not necessarily denote a Christian symbolic meaning. As a particular expression of a coastal setting, however, it is a theme appropriate to a mosaic of the St Mary Formosa basilica, which faces the southern shores of a city that lives with seafaring and fishing. Thus, the proximity and freshness of the sea, and the symbolic significance of the fish symbol, are an immediate inspiration to a Christian community.



Pula: motif of the panel with fish image.






1.    A fragment of mosaic pavement with the depiction of a fish

Preserved depiction (outlined in black) of the front end of fish with a wedge-shaped snout (in the manner of a dolphin). Two curved lines at the head (gills and mouth). The mosaic technique is very suitable to the scaly surface of a fish. The head and upper part of the fish are done in grey, and the lower part in white marble tesserae. The long dorsal and the smaller ventral fins are bichrome (green, ochre grey). Below the belly are three parallel curved lines depicting seawater (blue and green glass paste). The limestone tesserae (white, grey and ochre variation) are not uniform (the smallest are 1 x 1 cm, the largest 1.6 x 1.4 cm). Dimensions: 45 x 34 cm.
Inv. no. A/18655.
Pula, St Mary Formosa basilica, nave, 6th c.

2. Fragment of a limestone panel with a fish depicted in relief

The head of the fish is emphasised with the carved line of the gills, with closed mouth. The small fins are elongated in the manner of thorns (dorsal and ventral in pairs, one lateral). To the other side of the tablet is a circular band (ring) decorated with an incised continual wavy line. Within the disc is a Greek cross. The almost identical arms are grooved and the ends slightly broadened.
Dimensions: 51 x 22 x 9.5 cm.
Inv. no. S/8101.
Pula, the building area facing the St Francis church, 5th c.





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The Fish Symbol: two Fish Motifs in Early Christian Pula

Carrarina 4, Pula
Window to the Past
1. 6. – 13. 9. 2022.

Exhibition and text author: Željko Ujčić

Organizer and publisher: Arheološki muzej Istre

For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board: Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up & graphic design: Vjeran Juhas

Exhibition coordinator: Monika Petrović

Photographers: Željko Ujčić, Dario Maršanić

Drawings: Ivo Juričić

Graphic reconstruction of the mosaic: Brac d.o.o. - Medulin

Exhibit preparation: Branko Salopek, Andrea Sardoz

Translation in Italian: Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation: Neven Ferenčić

Croatian language editor: Milena Špigić

Proofs: Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić, Katarina Zenzerović

 Print: MPS Pula

Print run: 500


                                                    Pula, 2022.



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