Early Christian Art Symbols Endure after Iconoclast Attack

Fish and fishermen in early Christian iconography

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2015.—Ed.


 
khirbet-beit-lei-mosaic

Depictions of fish and fishermen, popular symbols in Christian art, can be found in the colorful floor mosaics at the sixth-century basilica at Horvat Beit Loya (also known as Khirbet Beit Lei). The mosaics were destroyed by iconoclasts in the eighth century. Photo: Gabi Laron.

In the eighth century C.E., iconoclasts attacked a Christian basilica at what is now Horvat Beit Loya (Arabic: Khirbet Beit Lei), about 30 miles from the Mediterranean Sea in the Judean lowlands of Israel. Their mission was to destroy the human and animal images depicted in colorful mosaic medallions on the floor of the church—perhaps in accordance with the edict of Caliph Yazid II in 721 C.E.,1 which ordered the destruction of Christian imagery throughout the Byzantine Empire. The iconoclasts succeeded in defacing the mosaics, and while someone evidently repaired the mosaics with colored tesserae afterward, no effort was made to restore the original images. By the end of the century, the church was abandoned.

Despite the destructive zeal of these iconoclasts, scholar Zaraza Friedman has been able to recover the early Christian art symbols represented in the mosaics at Beit Loya. In “Iconoclasts and Fishermen: Christian Symbols Survive” in the May/June 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Friedman analyzes the fish and fishermen—popular motifs in early Christian iconography—depicted in the mosaics.

The church at Beit Loya was built in the sixth century as a single-apse basilica with a nave and two side aisles. The aisles each contained a round mosaic medallion. Although the figures have been defaced, one can see on the mosaic medallion from the church’s north aisle (above) that a fisherman has caught a fish and a helmsman is steering the boat with oars. Fishermen and fish were common early Christian art symbols for Jesus, the apostles and their followers.
 


 
The Galilee is one of the most evocative locales in the New Testament—the area where Jesus was raised and where many of the Apostles came from. Our free eBook The Galilee Jesus Knew focuses on several aspects of Galilee: how Jewish the area was in Jesus’ time, the ports and the fishing industry that were so central to the region, and several sites where Jesus likely stayed and preached.
 

 
Author Zaraza Friedman explains why these were popular motifs in early Christian iconography:

“In Christian art, fish are a symbol of the Christian soul, while the fisherman is the image of Jesus or the apostles who brings the believers into a state of salvation. In Greek, fish is ichthus. The word was used by early Christians as an acronym for ‘Ιησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ’ (Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter), which translates into English as ‘Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.’

Jesus began his ministry near the Sea of Galilee (Hebrew: Yam Kinneret) in the environment of Jewish fishermen practicing long family traditions.”

In the Bible, we learn that Jesus actually gathered his first disciples when they were fishing:

As he [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Matthew 4:18–22; parallels Mark 1:16–20; Luke 5:9–11

Today, only the layout of the church at Beit Loya and parts of its mosaic floor remain, uncovered through excavation work in the 1980s. Through defacement and hundreds of years’ worth of exposure to the elements, the early Christian art symbols have, in spite of it all, survived.

——————

BAS Library Members: Learn more about symbols in Christian art and the mosaics at Horvat Beit Loya by reading the full article “Iconoclasts and Fishermen: Christian Symbols Survive” by Zaraza Friedman in the May/June 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 13, 2015.
 

 

Notes:

1. Joseph Patrich and Yoram Tsafrir, “A Byzantine Church Complex at Horvat Beit Loya,” in Yoram Tsafrir, ed., Ancient Churches Revealed (Jerusalem and Washington, DC: Israel Exploration Society and Biblical Archaeology Society, 1993), p. 265.

 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians: Part 1 and Part 2 by Douglas Boin

The Origin of Christianity

When Did Christianity Begin to Spread?

First Person: The Sun God in the Synagogue

The Lod Mosaic—Jewish, Christian or Pagan?
 


 
*Update: April 14, 2015: This post has been updated to provide information on the edict of Caliph Yazid II.
 

 

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  1. Steven says

    There is a Byzantine Church (Chorvat Chanut) near Matah in the Judean Hills which has had deliberate inclonoclastic activity carried out. Mosaics were rearranged (or maybe similarly destroyed and fixed).

  2. Kurt says

    The Mosaics of Christendom
    In the fourth century C.E., mosaics began to be used in Christendom’s churches. Often depicting Bible stories, such mosaics served to instruct worshipers. Flickering lights reflected on gold and colored-glass tesserae created an aura of mysticism. Says Storia dell’arte italiana (The History of Italian Art): “Mosaic art was in perfect harmony with the ideology of the time, which was greatly influenced by . . . Neoplatonism. In mosaic art there took place a process by means of which matter loses its dullness and is transformed into pure spirituality, pure light and pure space.”(Among other things, the unscriptural Neoplatonic philosophies promoted belief in the immortality of the soul.) What a radical departure from the simple form of worship taught by Christianity’s founder—Jesus Christ!—John 4:21-24.
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200274513
    Byzantine churches contain some outstanding examples of mosaic work. In some houses of worship, tesserae cover almost every inch of the interior walls and vaults. What are described as “masterpieces of Christian mosaic” can be seen in Ravenna, Italy, where gold backgrounds dominate, portraying divine light and mystic inaccessibility.
    Mosaic continued to be used prominently in Western European churches throughout the Middle Ages and was masterfully used in the Islamic world. In Renaissance Italy, workshops attached to great cathedrals, such as St. Mark’s in Venice and St. Peter’s in Rome, became production centers for mosaics. In about 1775, artisans in Rome learned how to cut molten glass threads of every shade imaginable into tiny tesserae, making it possible to execute miniature mosaic reproductions of paintings.
    Or consider the teaching of the immortality of the soul, a belief that some part of man lives on after the body dies. Again, the Church Fathers were instrumental in introducing this notion to a religion that had no teaching about a soul surviving death. The Bible clearly shows that the soul can die: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) What was the basis for the Church Fathers’ belief in an immortal soul? “The Christian concept of a spiritual soul created by God and infused into the body at conception to make man a living whole is the fruit of a long development in Christian philosophy. Only with Origen in the East and St. Augustine in the West was the soul established as a spiritual substance and a philosophical concept formed of its nature. . . . [Augustine’s doctrine] . . . owed much (including some shortcomings) to Neoplatonism,” says the New Catholic Encyclopedia. And the magazine Presbyterian Life says: “Immortality of the soul is a Greek notion formed in ancient mystery cults and elaborated by the philosopher Plato.”

  3. Paul says

    Kurt definitely rocked with that comment highlighting a very rich tradition of the fusion of Christian doctrine with Greek philosophy, becoming the seed that was sown in fertile intellectual soil and thus produced a bounty crop (Matthew 13:8). In the next stage of evolution, the grass-roots movement of the Nazarenes (like the image of the tribe of Issachar; the strong-boned ass, Genesis 49:14-15, laboring when he found good soil) from its local agricultural-based economy to the fisherman’s guilds on the Sea of Galilee where, according to the author of this magazine article (BAR, May/June 2015, p.42), this artistic tradition of a ship motif would be replicated as a symbol of the church, and just as Jesus preached from the boat, so does God speak through the church, if I may quote from Friedman’s article:
    “The metaphors drawn from the natural world, seas or rivers inhabited by varied fish and water creatures, became popular subjects in sermons and teachings of the Church Fathers, which also provided the visual source for the symbolism of such motifs in early Christian iconography”.
    “And God said, ‘Let swarm the waters with swarmers having a soul living…” (Genesis 1:20).

  4. Paul says

    An interesting parallel of the fish symbolizing spirituality comes from the 18th sura of the Koran, entitled “The Cave” where the persecuted Christians hid and slept until Christianity was the official religion of the empire. The story of Moses and Khidr (Koran 18:60-82) involves a fish that was intended for Moses and his unnamed attendant’s lunch while traveling in the Sinai desert, but the “meal” escapes and swims back to the ocean in “the most marvelous way” and their effort to locate it leads them to the wise man Khidr.
    “‘Khidr’ means ‘Green': his knowledge is fresh and green, and draws out of the living sources of life for it is drawn from Allah’s own Knowledge. He is a mysterious being, who has to be sought out … The nearest equivalent figure in the literature of the People of the Book is Melchizedak in Genesis xiv. 18-20″ (“The Holy Qur-an” by the King Fahd Holy Qur-an Printing Complex, pp. 839-840).
    Evidently the fish in this story symbolizes the elusiveness of God’s wisdom as we pursue our daily affairs and in Moses’ case the journey took him to the place where he had set out for, at the junction of the two seas, where the fish had escaped to but the attendant neglected to tell Moses about it further back in their journey. Moses is instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians (Acts 7:22) and he himself escapes Egypt like the fish with the wisdom going wherever he did gooo.

  5. Paul says

    There seems to be a connection between the character Khidr and the “junction of (the space) between the two (seas)” (Koran 18:60).
    “The most probable geographical location (if any is required in a story that is a parable) is where the two arms of the Red Sea join together, viz., the Gulf of ‘Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez. They enclose the Sinai peninsula, in which Moses and the Israelites spent many years in their wanderings” (“The Holy Qur-an,” p.838).
    From the start of the Israelite’s wanderings going “roundabout by the way of the Sea of Reeds” (Exodus 13:18) to the “way of the Arabah, from Elath and from Eziongeber” (Deuteronomy 2:8) where they began their journey toward the land of Canaan (Numbers 20:1, 33:36).
    Not mentioned in connection with the port city of Elath is the inland site of Timnah along the way of Arabah where there was a sanctuary of the Egyptian goddess Hathor (whose shrine in the eastern Nile delta region was mentioned in the Story of Sinhue as he made his departure from Egypt) and in the late 12th century B.C.E. the shrine at Timna was taken over by Midianites. The Egyptian-born Moses and the Midianite priest Jethro serve as a symbolic junction near the limits of Egyptian influence and the Midianites are connected to the land of the east (Genesis 25:6).
    The traditional chronology of the biblical patriarchs falls roughly within the Old Babylonian period (1800-1600 B.C.E.; if we are to believe that Joseph lived to be 110 in Genesis 50:26) during which time many old Sumerian works were reproduced in the Akkadian language. Among the writings was a Hymn to the goddess Nanse who came to prominence in the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. in the city-state of Lagash in southeast Sumer:
    “Nanse was especially associated with divination and the interpretation of dreams, and with birds and fishes. In an extended Sumerian hymn addressed to her, she is also praised as a benefactor of the socially disadvantaged and as responsible for checking the accuracy of weights and measurements. See Damu” (“Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia” by Jeremy Black and Anthony Green, p.135).
    Nanse’s consort, Damu, was a god of healing and in the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.E., this god was among the foreign deities that was assimilated into the pantheon of the city-state of Ebla, who is Abel, and whose blood (dam) cries from the ground (adama; a word thought to be derived from the Hurrian goddess Adamma who was assimilated into Ebla’s calender as a month) in Genesis 4:10. Damu, along with assimilated god Malik, were the most popular gods of the masses (“The Archives of Ebla” by Giovanni Pettinato, p.260).
    The goddess Nanse’s association with weights and balances brings to mind the account provided by Josephus (“Antiquities”, Book 1:2:2) that Cain, after setting off for the land of Nod, had “introduced a change in that way of simplicity wherein men lived before; and was the author of measures and weights. And whereas they lived innocently and generously while they knew nothing of such arts, he changed the world into cunning craftiness.” The city that Cain built for his son Enoch (teacher) is a reference to the Seven Sages who brought the arts of civilization to Eridu, who is Enoch’s son Irad (Genesis 4:17-18), and they are represented in art as being part human and part fish. The goddess Nanse also had her origins in the marshes of southern Mesopotamia from earliest times and as a daughter of the water god Ea/Enki, her abode is the sea (Persian Gulf) and festivals were held in her honor involving boats not unlike the Christian theme celebrated in art as described in the above article. In fact, this goddess with her association with fish and birds fulfills the word of God: “and let the birds fly over the earth, on the face of the expanse of the heavens” (Genesis 1:20). This could be a reference to the tradition mentioned by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2 concerning the mystical ascent to the heavens.
    In the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C.E. the pharaoh Unas left a legacy carved on the walls of his pyramid depicting his ascent into the heavenly regions after his death. In order to accomplish this feat he must consume the gods along with their wisdom which at one point verges on cannibalism which is why scholars think these descriptions date back to prehistoric times:
    “He has swallowed the Green One [meaning all that is vegetal]. Unas feeds himself on the union [sma, the conjuncture that makes for] of the Sages” (“Sacred Science” by R.A. Schwaller De Lubics, p.221).
    I’m of the opinion that the Green Sea is the origin of life on earth that arrived here frozen on comets which is essentially the water that was above the expanse (Genesis 1:7), being the first element existing in ancient cosmologies (the “tehom,” or deep, in Genesis 1:2):
    “As to the creation of the water itself, Semitic traditions are not numerous. Proverbs 8, 24 speaks of pre-existant wisdom which was before the Tehomot. Job 38, 8 contains only a slight allusion to the genesis of Tehom: ‘He covered the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb.’ This silence seems to mean that the primaeval water must not be ranged in the same line as created things; it is an entity which, also in monotheistic times, retains something of the divine aspect which, in earlier times, made it be considered as the rival of the gods. It is only Muslim tradition that has broken the silence; Ibn ‘Abbas knows how the water has been created. When God intended to create the water, he created a green hyacinth, fixed its length, breadth and height. Then he regarded it with a majestic look; then it became a small quantity of water which was in constant motion. This apparent undulation and motion was only a trembling caused by the fear of God” (“The Ocean In the Literature of the Western Semites” by A.J. Wensinck, p.6-7). Compare these measurements of the primordial celestial matrix with the calculations of a physicist considered an authority on the Big Bang:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/02/science/avi-loeb-ponders-the-early-universe-nature-and-life-html

  6. Paul says

    woops
    http:www.nytimes.com/2014/12/02/science/avi-loeb-ponders-the-early-universe-nature-and-life.html


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