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Photo of the 4th century fish mosaic of Poreč
Born again fish?

Posted on 16 November 2012, 8:20

I went to Croatia a few weeks ago and visited the seaside town of Poreč (a name charmingly pronounced like ‘porridge’, but with a ‘ch’ sound at the end), which is home to a very ancient Christian church. Still standing is a modest, 6th century Roman basilica, which is quite plain inside except when you look to the front and see beautiful, glowing mosaics filling the semi-dome of the apse. In the centre of the mosaic is an image of Mary holding Jesus in her lap, with a smiling angel on either side. It is said to be the oldest surviving image of Mary in a western basilica.

But outside are even more wonders, because right next door to the basilica is the footprint of an earlier, 4th century church, which astonishingly still has its fine mosaic floor, open to the sky. The sea laps the shoreline less than 50 metres away.

Guard railings prevent you from actually walking on the floor (thank goodness), but you can easily see the weather-stained geometric shapes, flowers and foliage which fill the space. But there’s something else in the floor, and it’s a surprise. In the midst of all the patterns is a solitary fish. It’s rather randomly placed, top right in a big square that’s been sub-divided into a checkerboard of nine squares, three to a side. It’s as if a fish fell out of a shopping bag onto a highly patterned Persian rug and was left there for no particular reason.

I knew the basilica had this fish mosaic, and it was the main reason I wanted to visit Poreč in the first place. The fish is one of the earliest symbols of the Christian faith, dating right back to the times when Christians were persecuted and needed codes and ciphers to communicate safely with each other.

The word for ‘fish’ is ichthus in Greek, and the individual Greek letters can each be used to start a word which then forms the sentence, ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’. That’s how you turn an ordinary fish into a discreet little confession of faith. And of course this clever symbol has stood the test of time. You can buy cute versions of the same fish symbol and stick them on the back of your car to annoy the driver behind.

I was especially looking forward to seeing the fish of Poreč, because it was created in the same tumultuous century as the final persecution of the Christians, which was followed by the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome. For that reason, this particular fish was made by men within living memory of the persecuted church, which gave birth to the symbol.

But two things took me by surprise. First, inside the basilica’s museum, you can see a copy of the mosaic close up. And I just wasn’t expecting to see a fish which looked so aggressive, with spines and needle-sharp teeth (see the picture above, or a bigger version here). The fish, after all, is meant to signify Christ himself. My wife Roey voiced what I was thinking: ‘That can’t be the ichthus fish because it looks so horrible!’

This made me think that maybe the leaflet we’d picked up at the ticket office, which described the mosaic as a ‘Fish – Christian symbol’, might be wrong. It could be that the fish was just a fish, part of the decoration of this ancient Christian building, which also features fruit and vines, flowers and leaves, without each detail being deeply symbolic.

The second surprise, though, was seeing the fish in the actual mosaic pavement, where it had been placed 17 centuries earlier. It is the only animal in the whole floor, and there it is, at the very front of the church. It simply stands out as something exceptional and eye-catching. As something significant.

Maybe it’s just there because the merchant who paid for this stretch of mosaic was in the fish trade and wanted to be remembered. But the symbol had such resonance for the newly-liberated Christian community that it’s hard to imagine it landed there on a tradesman’s whim, stripped of its cherished history and hidden meaning.

In a fishing town like Poreč, the makers of ancient mosaics knew what fish looked like, and they drew them as they saw them in the market, teeth and all. The craftsman who made this fish also depicted the gills like a wound in the fish’s side, using dark red stones.

I think this is a genuine ichthus – unlike the Disneyfied version seen today on a thousand bumper stickers.

See my Flickr gallery of the Euphrasian Basilica, Poreč.

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Thanks, balaam… I hadn’t heard of Nessebar and it’s always great to have a recommendation of places with good things to see. Interesting to hear about the fish. When I was writing the piece I realised I should have dropped into a fish shop while I was in Poreč and asked them to ID the fish in the image. Maybe next time.

Simon, Fri 16 Nov, 21:02

If you are into old Christian art, Nessebar on Bulgarian Black Sea Coast is a good place to visit.

An icon of the resurrection in the museum (no cameras allowed) showed the soldiers sleeping at the empty tomb in period Turkish uniforms.

The restaurants there also serve fish which look remarkably like the one in your picture (except for the red gills). They are delicious.

balaam, Fri 16 Nov, 16:24

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