Fish and fishermen in early Christian iconography
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 the Bible, we learn that Jesus actually gathered his first disciples when they were fishing:
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.
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.
*Update: April 14, 2015: This post has been updated to provide information on the edict of Caliph Yazid II.
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