Funerary stele of Licinia Amias with Christian motto in Greek: ‘Fish of the living’
Museo Nazionale Romano
|A modern-day Ichthys many will recognize|
Fish (along with bread) are mentioned frequently in the Gospels and are typically associated with Christ in a Eucharistic context. All four Gospels contain various accounts of the multiplication of loaves and fish by Jesus—twice in Mark and Matthew, and once in Luke and John. Fish are also eaten by Jesus and his disciples in the post-resurrection appearances recounted at the end of Luke and John. Not coincidentally, several of the apostles were fishermen, to whom Jesus called, “I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19).
So it is no surprise that the fish became a primary symbol for the early Christians, who apparently used it from the beginning, particularly in artwork and funerary slabs, until the Constantinian era, according to the Encyclopedia of the Early Church. “It almost always clearly represents Christ, though sometimes standing for the Christian, and its history can be traced from its appearance in the [early] second century down to the fourth, when it begins gradually to disappear on Christian monuments,” writes C.R. Morey in a 1910 article in the Princeton Theological Review.
The symbol of the fish represented Christ, and signified not only the Eucharist, but baptism, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, and eternal life, and “as the cross denoted the ever-present danger of persecution until the middle of the fourth century, the fish identified individuals as Christians,” writes Diane Apostolos-Cappadonia in the Dictionary of Christian Art.
In this light, its popularity among the early Christians, who sometimes needed to be careful about how they identified themselves, is due to the acrostic formed by the ancient Greek word for fish, ichthys. The word is formed with the initial letters of the five Greek words for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” (Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter) and the acrostic is recognized as “ΙΧΘΥC”. As such, the acrostic, or the image of a fish, or both, comprised a profession of faith in the divinity of Christ, the Redeemer of mankind, states The Catholic Encyclopedia.
Believers, then, became “little fishes,” sharing in Christ’s baptism and resurrection through the Eucharist. Just as a fish cannot live out of water, the Christian cannot live outside of Christ. These images are often combined in some writings of the early fathers, and particularly in artwork and inscriptions contained within the Roman catacombs.
One of the most famous examples of this is from the early Christian writer Tertullian (b.150), who in his treatise On Baptism wrote: “We little fishes are born in water, after the example of our Ichthys Jesus Christ. And we have safety in no other way than by permanently abiding in water.”
This type of representation also appears in the ancient epitaph of Abercius, a second-century bishop of
Hierapolis in Phrygia, which Joannes Quasten, in his four-volume work Patrology, calls “the queen of all ancient Christian inscriptions.” Written in a metaphorical, mystical style common to its day, it is a good text for meditation in any age. In part it reads:
Everywhere faith led the wayAnd set before me for food the fish from the springMighty and pure, whom a spotless Virgin caught,And gave this to friends to eat, alwaysHaving sweet wine and giving the mixed cup with bread.
This is the oldest monument of stone mentioning the Eucharist, and as Quasten explains, Abercius is describing a journey on which he shared the Eucharist with fellow Christians: “The fish from the spring, mighty and pure, is Christ, according to the acrostic ΙΧΘΥC. The spotless Virgin who caught the fish is, according to the language of the time, the Virgin Mary, who conceived the Savior.”
May all “little fishes” share in this feast!