Scala/Art Resource, NY

Jesus the magician? Illustrations of Jesus’ miracles abound in early Christian art. This carved panel, part of an olive-wood door from the fifth-century basilica of Santa Sabina, one of the oldest churches in Rome, depicts Jesus healing the blind man (top), multiplying the loaves and fishes (middle) and turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana (bottom). As is common in images of Jesus’ wonder-working in early Christian art, Jesus carries a wand, much as magicians did in pagan Roman art.

Frequently depicted in early Christian art, the miracle of the loaves and fishes (sometimes called the feeding of the multitude) is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels, reflecting its importance to early Christians. In this story, Jesus divides five or seven loaves and two fish among a crowd of five thousand people gathered to hear him preach; after they eat, the disciples gather up seven or twelve baskets of scraps (Matthew 14:13–21, 15:32–39; Mark 6:30–44, 8:1–10, 14–20; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–15). Many of the catacomb paintings show two fish, five or seven loaves, and twelve baskets of bread, leading some art historians to identify the paintings as references to the feeding of the multitude. However, the catacomb paintings fail to conform to the standard early Christian format for depicting the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, which invariably shows Jesus standing and pointing a rod at bushels of bread at his feet—as on the door from Santa Sabina. Thus, Jensen argues, the catacomb paintings must depict something else.