Late Antique, Early Christian and Jewish gems: 3rd and 4th centuries - Symbolic images (Fish and the Good Shepherd)

Another popular motif found on Christian gems of the later 3rd century is a pair of fish flanking an anchor or a cross-like object. Although the symbol is of pagan origin, attested first in the late Hellenistic period, its sudden appearance on gems in the 3rd century, as well as its occurrence in the Roman catacombs, demonstrates that Christians adopted the image, reinterpreting it as an allusion to Jesus (IXQYC). Some examples are labelled with explicitly Christian phrases.

Also appearing on gems of the later 3rd and 4th centuries is the image of the Good Shepherd. The shepherd is always shown carrying a sheep on his shoulders (the pose being that of the classical Greek kriophoros, but also a literal rendering of Luke 15:5), sometimes in a bucolic setting before a tree and with other sheep at his feet. Many of these gems have additional, explicitly Christian references, either inscriptions ("Jesus Christ", the chi-rho monogram, IXQYC, or some variant) or symbols, such as fish or anchors.

Gem image

Two fish flank an anchor, CREICTOU, "of Christ".

Berlin, inv. J.9396. Nicolo, 13 x 10 mm.

Gem image

The Good Shepherd. An anchor is in the field and a fish in the exergue.

Oxford (Fortnum 89). Red jasper, 17 x 14 mm.