This symbol, called the vesica pisces (piscis) or “Jesus fish,” has an unusual history. Used almost exclusively today to denote membership in the Christian religion, the symbol once held a very different meaning (even to the early Christians who adopted it). The word usually found inscribed within, IXOYE (Ichthus), is Greek, meaning fish. The emblem became significant to Christians after St. Augustine, who extracted the word from the acrostic prophecy* of the Erythraean Sibyl, and applied the kabbalistic technique of notarikon (acrostic) to the word to reveal “Jesus Christ, God’s son, savior.”
The custom of early Christians to communicate by drawing a portion in the dust was carried over from the practice of the ancient Pythagoreans, who discovered the shape’s unique properties and made it an important part of their teachings. In earlier times, this glyph was associated with the Goddess Venus, and represented female genitalia. Early depictions of Christ depict him as an infant within the vesica (In this context, it is usually referred to as a mandorla, meaning ‘almond shaped.’), which represented the womb of Mary, and often, the coming together of heaven and earth in the body of Jesus (part man, part god). As such, it is also a doorway or portal between worlds, and symbolizes the intersection between the heavens and the material plane.
The shape of arches in Gothic architecture is based on the vesica. The shape of the vesica pisces is derived from the intersection of two circles, the Pythagorean “measure of the fish” that was a mystical symbol of the intersection of the world of the divine with the world of matter and the beginning of creation.
To the Pythagoreans, the whole of creation was based on number, and by studying the properties of number, they believed one could achieve spiritual liberation. The vesica pisces was the symbol of the first manifestation, the dyad (reflection) that gaves birth to the entire manifest universe. Within the vesica can be found the triangle, the tetrad, the square, the pentacle, and many more polygons, making the vesica a true symbolic womb. Adding a third circle creates a triquetra representing the trinity; continuing the pattern generates an image of the “flower of life” or “fisherman’s net.”
Curiously, the New Testament story of the loaves and fishes secretly reveals the geometric formula for the fish shaped device, as does the story of the miraculous catch:
“Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken. (John 21:11) ”
The construction of the vesica is also detailed in the Parable of the net. (Mathew 13:47-53)
This is little remarked upon by Bible scholars and usually ignored by Christian bible interpreters. You can read more about the hidden biblical symbolism of the Vesica Pisces here.
|Saint pictured within a mandorla||Concealed vesica pisces in an Albrecht Durer engraving|
* According to St. Augustine: “the verses are twenty-seven, which is the cube of three. For three times three are nine, and nine itself, if tripled, so as to rise from the superficial square to the cube, comes to twenty-seven. But if you join the initial letters of the five Greek words which mean, ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour,’ they will make the word, that is, fish, in which word Christ is mystically understood, because he was able to live, that is, to exist, without sin in the abyss of this mortality as in the depth of waters.”