Creation of the Fishes

Sir William Blake Richmond1891/1904

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul's Cathedral

Opaque glass mosaic, designed by William Blake Richmond, executed by Messrs Powell of Whitefriars, completed by 1896

The whales depicted at the border of this depiction of the Creation of the Fish are supposedly based on Michelangelo’s depiction of a whale on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (see Browne 1896 below). The famous depiction of the whale of the prophet Jonah on Michelangelo’s fresco, the species of which is a matter of discussion, is not however comparable in terms of form. If Browne is right, it served as model in terms of idea rather than actual form. Instead Richmond’s “whale” appears to be loosely based on early modern prints of the same subject. The subject of The Creation of the Fish is also depicted in Byzantine mosaic cycles drawing upon the Book of Genesis.

Brief description: the overall composition is symmetrical with eight segments marked by jets of water emanating from eight fish-like creatures on the axes; the centre a golden disk, inscribed CREAVITAS DEVS CETE GRANDIA (‘God created great whales’) and surrounded by circles of scales, gradually changing into waves towards the edges of the dome; the waves are populated by various stylised fish, in near-symmetrial arrangements, meandering and jumping in and out of the waves and therefore only partly visible; some of them inspired by existing species such as flying fish and gurnard.

Related quotes: Genesis 1:21: “creavitque Deus cete grandia et omnem animam viventem atque motabilem quam produxerant aquae in species suas et omne volatile secundum genus suum et vidit Deus quod esset bonum” (Vulgate); “So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.” (NIV)

Browne 1896, pp. 11-12: “The middle saucer-dome represents the creation of the fishes. The field is divided into eight sections by the spoutings of eight whales. The heads of the whales are in accordance with Michelangelo’s representation of a whale in the roof of the Sistine chapel. The inscription at the centre is Creavit Deus cete grandia, ‘God created great whales’ (Genesis i.21). The rich blue of the waves, and the many-hued fish disporting themselves in the whirling waters, afford a very brilliant picture, the details of which it is not quite easy to follow. The open books in the great sculptured wreath round the saucer-dome carry words from the New Testament with special relation to fishes and fishing in the symbolical meaning: - vado piscari, ‘I go fishing (John xxx.3); (north) mittite in dexteram, ‘cast the net on the right side’ (John xxi.6); (west) centum quinquaginta iii, ‘an hundred and fifty and three’ (John xxi.II)”

Related work elsewhere: The Creation, mosaic cycle, 12th century, Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Italy; The Creation, mosaic cycle, 13th century, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy; Matthaeus Merian, Jonah and the Whale, print, c. 1625; (also acc. to Browne 1896: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508-1512)

Literature and references: Browne 1896, pp. 11-12; Zech 2015, p. 32 ill.

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