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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