Jonah: a story in art

From today’s readings: Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. (Mt 12:38-41)

Scenes depicting Jonah are some of the earliest representations of Christian art, appearing in the Catacombs of Sts. Peter and Marcellius. In addition, it was a popular biblical image on sarcophagi. The early Christians saw Jonah as a type of Christ and his story as a promise of resurrection first for Christ but then for all the faithful who are in Christ. Later Early Christians expanded the iconic understanding of Jonah to include more than the account of spending three days in the belly of the whale (sea monster).

The 4th-century ivory above is typical of the later period. On the right Jonah’s fellow passengers toss him into the sea, where a sea monster comes to swallow him. On the far left the monster has delivered him up to the land. To the right of that, he sleeps under a gourd tree. The next morning, he learns from God the lesson of the gourd. Jonah had complained that after God made him prophesy doom for Nineveh he relented upon seeing their repentance. So, God gives him a shade tree for a day. When the tree dies and Jonah whines about it, God’s reply closes the book:

You are concerned over the gourd plant which cost you no effort and which you did not grow; it came up in one night and in one night it perished. And should I not be concerned over the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?” (Jonah 4:9-11)

This sequence of events that we see in the ivory above was especially favored in 3rd- and 4th-century sarcophagi, which merged it into the imagery of Baptism, the gateway to resurrection. One way of suggesting Jonah’s connection with Baptism was to show him naked as the sailors toss him into the sea (look closely at the image above). In the baptismal ritual, catechumens were stripped naked before immersion in the baptismal pool. Another thought was to re-imagine Jonah’s time under the gourd tree as the blessed state awaiting the baptized and resurrected soul. Jonah’s reclining pose under the gourd tree is adapted from classical iconography that poses the naked sleeper frontally with legs crossed and one arm raised over the head while the weight of the body rests on the other arm and the left hip. Jonah’s nudity is like Adam’s before the Fall and signifies an innocence restored.

By the middle ages, most of the religious imagery associated with the story of Jonah has been forgotten and Jonah simply appears as another of the OT prophets.

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