Two Fish
9.75 x 3 x 8 inches
Probably from Egypt 200-500 CE
Picker Art Gallery
Colgate University, Hamilton, NY

This relief depicts two fish. The fish on the left faces downward and to the right, while the fish on the right faces upward and to the right, creating an undulating, flowing composition that echoes the movement of the sea. Compared to the longer and leaner fish on the right, the fish on the left is short and stout. The lines along the dorsal fins of both fish run in opposite diagonal directions. These two fish are certainly not identical, which may indicate that the artist was trying to depict two different species of fish. In antiquity, reliefs of this type probably would have been painted, so paint could have also been a further indication of differentiation between species. 

Fish are not present on any of the other works in the Mayer collection of Late Antique Egyptian reliefs, causing one to wonder if this piece may have come from a different site from any of the others. This relief stands out from the others in its iconography, while style, shape, and form seem consistent with the rest of the group. It is worth noting that fish were traditionally symbolic of the Christian faith, and this relief’s unique nature among the others in the Mayer collection may suggest the possibility that it could have come from the tomb of a Christian. Another possibility is that one or both of the fish could be sturgeon. Roger Khawam (the dealer who sold three of our reliefs to Mayer in 1961) noted that sturgeon were worshipped at Oxyrhynchus during this time. 

On the bottom of the relief, there is a border with dentals running across. This border is not, however, present on the top of the relief. It is impossible to know if the top border was destroyed or if it never existed at all. This lack of top border may indicate that the relief ran around the ceiling of a temple or tomb in which it would have been viewed from below. However, one cannot be certain if this was the case.

Interestingly, the eyes of the two fish differ in size and shape. The eye of the fish on the right is slightly larger and less round than that of the fish on the left. This indicates that they may not have been made with the same tool. The running drill that probably created some of the holes in the other reliefs in the collection was not used here; the pupils of the fish are much shallower than are the pupils of animals in other reliefs whose eyes seem to have been carved using such a drill.

The tail of the fish on the left has been damaged; its end is missing entirely. White marks indicating damage are present on this fish’s tail and on the head and pelvic fin of the fish on the right. This white surface abrasion is present on many parts of the relief, but mostly along the lower border. The top left corner seems to be most damaged: a portion of the stone appears to be missing.

Eliza Graham '14 is an Art History major and French minor at Colgate University.