A fish is considered a symbol of the origin of life in accordance with the traditional cosmogonic concepts of most peoples of the Earth: life originated from water, and therefore is associated with the process of fertilization. During ritual worships, fish dishes, as well as fish sacrifices were presented to all gods of the underworld and the moon goddesses of water, love and fertility. This symbolism was known both in ancient Egypt and in Celtic, Indian, Mesopotamian, Burmese, Persian cultures, and the art of the Eastern Slavs. In the bronze fibulae of the 7th century, found in the village of Zenkovo in Poltava region, the connecting links resemble snakes, fish, and birds of prey, thus connecting the three elements of nature: air, water, and earth. The images of these animals are often found in the decoration of jewellery in Central Asia, where they were also associated with the idea of fertility. In ancient times, a gold figurine of a fish was worn as an amulet (Oxus Treasure of the 5th-4th centuries BC, 2nd century BC fish from New Nisa); dolphin-fish are depicted on clasps from Tillya Tepe (Afghanistan, 1st century BC). The images of fish are also reflected in the ornament of some traditional jewellery of northern Tajiks and Uzbeks. This ornament is known as "fishtail" or "fish scale" and was interpreted as a symbol of numerous posterity, and in some cases served as the personification of wealth and happiness.
From the catacombs to the top
The images of fish were most widely spread and interpreted in the early Christian art of the 3rd-6th centuries AD, as evidenced by numerous examples found in the catacombs, which served as a meeting place for Christians during the period of the first persecutions. Back then, the symbolism was used primarily as cryptography, so that the co-religionists could recognize each other in a hostile environment.
Fish symbolism explains the origin of the monogram of the name of Jesus. Christians saw in this word a kind of acrostic (the initial letters of each word make up a meaningful text), telling about Christ. Each letter of the "ancient Greek fish" was for them, respectively, the first letter of other very important words expressing the profession of Christianity: "Ιησούς Χριστός Θεού Υιός Σωτήρ" (Greek) – "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour" ( in abbreviated form: ICHTHYS – Fish).
With the spread of Christianity and its pictorial culture, fish symbolism became polysemic. First of all, it is a symbol of baptism: as a fish cannot live without water, so a true Christian won't find salvation without passing through the waters of baptism. The satiation of five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish served not only as an example of mercy, but was also widely used as a metaphor for the Eucharist (Loaves and Fish. Mosaic. Tabgha. Israel. 4th century AD).
Three intertwined fishes or three fishes with one head, which can be found on church emblems, represent the Trinity, revealing to those with open spiritual vision. No less significant is the story of the prophet Jonah, swallowed by the "big fish" and emerging unscathed three days later, which symbolizes resurrection and the Gospel story about the miraculous catch of Christ’s disciples, symbolizing "catching people" for Jesus Christ.
The medieval painting, with its strictly religious character, didn't care about the real world. Therefore, the choice of themes and subjects, developed by the artists was extremely limited, and the symbolism was strictly fixed within the framework of church theology. Each artist had to strictly follow the canonical regulations and there even existed special textbooks for that purpose. In book miniatures and gravestone reliefs of the 12th- 14th centuries, birds and fish symbolized the "upper and the lower abyss." Speaking of emblems, fish were rarely used there, since they meant dumbness and voicelessness.
The alchemists code and peasants language
Symbols, allegories, metaphors, complex associations, analogies and parallels were elements of a specific language of medieval thinking. Each department of knowledge saw in the real world, first of all, a certain system of symbols depending on the point of view from which they were considered. For example, for astronomers and astrologers, fish was a sign of the moon; alchemists considered it a symbol of water; in medicine, it was associated with a phlegmatic temperament; dream-readers interpreted it as the embodiment of the desires of the flesh, and for ordinary people it was associated with fasting. The image of a fish hanging upside down meant disorder, a violation of moral standards. What is more, the medieval consciousness endowed every thing, phenomenon or object with such diverse meanings.
The Renaissance world view made a breach in the system of medieval aesthetic ideas, and a wide stream of the earthly world rushed through it into religious painting. A significant contribution to the development of European painting was made by the Netherlands in the 15th – 16th centuries. Artists were looking for new subjects, means and ways of expressing their creative ideas. The symbols were still used, but the meaning of an image changed depending on which language could be assigned to its author.
The work of Hieronymus Bosch can be seen as the culmination of the replacement of religious painting by the secular one, given the retaining polysemy of the visual code. Bosch's artistic language never fully fit into canonical interpretations. The artist often used certain symbols in the completely unusual sense, and also invented new symbols. One of the most famous works of the master is the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500–1510).
In the work of another great artist of that era – Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the images of fish illustrated exclusively Flemish proverbs. For example, in the painting Netherlandish Proverbs (1559), the characters visually treat fish as a product, but the artist put into his plots a meaning that art historians still haven't made sense of, because not all proverbs have survived to our days.
For example, a plot with a man frying fish illustrates the proverb "to fry the whole herring for the sake of the roe" (meaning to do too much to achieve a little). However, it's possible that the artist meant to illustrate a different proverb here – "his herring fries not here" (it's not going according to plan). One more Netherlandish proverb can be applied to this detail: "the herring does not fry here", i.e. his attempts fail, he does not get what he hopes for. In another part of the painting, the peasant is unsuccessfully trying to catch fish with a net: "to fish behind the net" (to miss an opportunity).
Of course, there are many paintings on the subject of the favourite proverb "Big fish eat little fish" (as in the work by Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1556) – the strong mistreat the weak; eat or be eaten, etc.
A special place in this context is held by the imagery of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who reflected the water element in the female portrait Water (1563-1564), composed of various sea creatures.
The feast replaced the throne
The European society underwent changes, which eventually caused the reappraisal of values. Fish symbolism began to lose its sacred meaning and moved into the utilitarian sphere: catch, eat, enjoy. This happened in Holland, where the Reformation, forbidding artists to paint on religious themes, forced them to look for new directions. That's how still-life painting appeared.
The first still-lifes were characterized by simple subjects; their images were created solemnly and orderly in accordance with the established canons: bread, a glass of wine, fish (symbols of Christ); a knife (symbol of sacrifice); a lemon (symbol of unsatisfied thirst); nuts in the shell (soul bound by sin); an apple (the Fall) and so on. (Pieter Claesz. Still-life. 1597-1661).
The fish-symbol, bearing a variety of meanings and shades (from a satire on human lust to the echo of controversy about church sacraments and hierarchy) has been widely used in scenes of fish markets and shops, fishing etc. Religious subjects gradually began to give way to the bourgeois ones. Not only the church, but also the new emerging social class began commissioning works of art. Each guild tried to order a canvas to perpetuate their merits; it also became popular to illustrate the activities of various specialties and trades.
The Netherlands and Flanders, as key centres for the development of European painting, focused on new humanistic values: people and their interests.
In his famous series of "markets" – Fish Market, Fruit Market, Still-life with a Swan, etc. (1613-1620), Flemish artist Frans Snyders depicted tables full of all kinds of food, most often game or fish.
The paintings are full of sparkling fish scales, which the artist used to represent not death, but life which is slowly fading away. However, you should not trust this rich picture – the real life of that time was much more modest. The viewer is looking at the embodiment of the spirit of good old Flanders, the love of its people for earthly gifts and the innocent dream about the fruitful Land of idlers, where roasted partridges fly into everyone's mouth.
Artists of the beginning of the 20th century actively used the "fish" theme in their work. The members of the "Jack of Diamonds" group sought to bring their work closer to the folk "lubok" prints, creating juicy colourful still-lifes, competing with street signs, such as Still-Life (1910) by Ilya Mashkov.
One of the brightest mentions, appealing to the classical tradition, is the painting The Sacred Fish (1918) by the founder of metaphysical painting Giorgio de Chirico, in which the plot is full of mystery and ambiguity. And the name itself makes the meaning clear. Ten years later, Chirico created a still-life with fish, in which he abandoned irrational mystery, turning to the traditional imagery.
The avant-garde artists were already interested in optical illusions, the play of forms, colours and textures (Zinaida Serebriakova, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse).
Creating his painting The Goldfish in 1925, Paul Klee interpreted the image of this inhabitant of water in his own way. The fish attracts the viewer's eye with its glow and threatening scratchy fins. It is likely that in this work, the author decided to turn to his unrealized childhood fantasies, and transformed a cute creature into the mysterious piranha.
In 1940, Nicholas Roerikh also turned to the theme of fish in his painting A Spell. Teraphim, depicting a shaman who reaches out to the forces of water, fire, earth and air in his ritual.
Artists love to depict fish to this day and will certainly always return to this image. Chances are, their interest will be based on the characteristics of the inhabitants of the deep sea, formed on the subconscious level: water element, abundance, richness and diversity of nature.