Friday, March 2, 2012

The Sign of Jonah

Anton Wierix, The Sign of Jonah
 From Evangelicae historiae imagines by Gerard Nadal
Flemish, 1593-1595
This engraving illustrates the passage from Luke's Gospel.  Jesus is seen
in the foreground speaking to the people, while the background presents 
the Old Testament references.  A lettered key below the picture explains 
the meaning.
"While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them,
"This generation is an evil generation;
it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it,
except the sign of Jonah.
Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites,
so will the Son of Man be to this generation.
At the judgment
the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation
and she will condemn them,
because she came from the ends of the earth
to hear the wisdom of Solomon,
and there is something greater than Solomon here.
At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation
and condemn it,
because at the preaching of Jonah they repented,
and there is something greater than Jonah here.”

(Luke 11:29-32) Gospel for Wednesday in the First Week of Lent*

In the Gospel reading for the Wednesday in the First Week of Lent Jesus speaks of the “sign of Jonah”. Just what is that?

The story of Jonah relates how, after receiving the inspiration of God to preach repentance to the town of Nineveh (in today’s Iraq) Jonah was afraid and tried to run away from his mission by sea. The ship he was traveling in was caught by a fierce storm and the sailors blamed Jonah (presumably the only passenger). To appease the sea they threw Jonah overboard (at his own suggestion), where he was swallowed by “a great fish” (later ages would call it a whale or, sometimes, a sea monster). However, Jonah was not digested by the fish, but remained alive in its belly. Jonah prayed to God, asking for deliverance and he was delivered. After three days and nights the fish spat him out. After this ordeal Jonah did go to Nineveh, where his preaching was successful.1

The meaning of this “sign” is clear to Christians. As Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights and was returned unharmed to dry land, so Jesus remained three days in the tomb and returned glorified. But, unlike the people of Nineveh, who repented after hearing Jonah’s preaching, not all will recognize the preaching of Jesus and His followers. 

Jonah Thrown Into the Sea
Roman, mid-4th century
Rome, Catacomb of Priscilla

This parallel between Jonah’s three days and nights buried, as it were, in the belly of the fish and Jesus’ time buried in the tomb caused the earliest Christians to see Jonah as a precursor of Jesus, a type or sign of what was to come. Not surprisingly, therefore, images of Jonah became popular among early Christians. In fact “Next to the Good Shepherd, Jonah was the most popular biblical character, appearing in Early Christian visual art ten times more than any other figure. Jonah is also unique in that he is depicted as part of a narrative sequence. Paintings and relief sculpture alike show him being tossed over the side of the boat (into the sea monster’s mouth), being spit up again, and reclining on dry land.”2

In the visual arts, Christianity was barely out of the era of discreet and tightly held symbolism, where the main visual expression was simple symbols, such as the well known outlined fish (ichthys) or the anchor or the Chi Rho, when Jonah began to appear. This is not too surprising. Since the Hebrew Bible was known to the wider Roman public, stories from it could be read by the uninitiated at their face value. The deeper, Christian, meaning of the story of Jonah would be grasped by those who understood the parallels. So, to some extent, even while readable as a straightforward story to all, the Jonah images were still symbolic to Christians.

Early images appear in several media: sculpture, painting, decorations on glass, beginning (so far as we currently know) in the late 3rd century. Some examples are shown here.  

Sarcophagus Front with Jonah and Christian Scenes
Marble, Rome, Late 3rd Century
Vatican City, Vatican Museums, Museo Pio-Cristiano

Jonah Swallowed
Asia Minor, Late 3rd Century
Cleveland, Museum of Art

Jonah Cast Up
Asia Minor, Late 3rd Century
Cleveland, Museum of Art

Marble Table Base with Jonah Swallowed and Cast Up
Asia Minor, Early 4th Century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

By the Middle Ages, the sign of Jonah had become a widely recognized “type” or prefiguration for the Entombment of Jesus following the Crucifixion.  

For example, in the Klosterneuburg Altarpiece of Nicholas of Verdun, made in 1181 for the abbey church where it still remains, it appears as the “type” for the period “Under the Law”.

Section of Klosterneuburg Altarpiece showing the three levels.  
At the top Joseph is thrown into the well, in the middle Jesus is placed in the tomb, at the bottom Jonah is thrown to the fish.

 The scenes in the altarpiece are divided into three tiers: at the top are the scenes that took place “Before the Law” (that is, before the Exodus), at the bottom are the scenes that took place “Under the Law” (that is, between the Exodus and the Incarnation). In the middle row are the scenes “Under Grace”, that is from the New Testament. In this case, Jonah is thrown into the mouth of the fish at the bottom, Joseph is thrown into the well at the top and Jesus is placed in the tomb in the middle.

Nicholas of Verdun, Joseph Thrown Down the Well By His Brothers -- Before the Law
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg Abbey, Austria

Nicholas of Verdun, Entombment of Jesus -- Under Grace
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg Abbey, Austria

Nicholas of Verdun, Jonah Thrown to the Fish -- Under the Law
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg Abbey, Austria

This use of “types” was also common in manuscript painting during the Middle Ages. As at Klosterneuburg, Jonah is often paired with the Entombment.

Entombment of Christ and Jonah Thrown into the Sea
From a Book of Hours
Dutch, ca. 1425
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS 133 M 131, fol. 90v and 91r
On the left page is the Entombment, while the capital on the right page is Jonah

Rambures Master, Joseph Thrown into the Well (Before the Law), Entombment of Jesus (Under Grace),
Jonah Thrown to the Fish (Under the Law)
from Biblia pauperum
French (Hesdin or Amiens), ca. 1470
The Hague, Meermano Museum
MS MMW 10 A 15, fol. 33r
This view shows all three stories in juxtaposition:  Joseph in the well, Jesus entombed, Jonah thrown to the fish.

However, also from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance and beyond the story of Jonah can also be read simply as a Biblical illustration, independent of typology. Examples of this view of Jonah also abound.

From the Golden Munich Psalter
English (Oxford), c. 1200-1225
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 835, fol. 111v

Maitre de Boece, Jonah Thrown Overboard
From Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus
Flemish (Bruges), 1483
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 13, fol. 240

Michealangelo, Jonah
Italian, 1508-1512
Vatican City, Sistine Chapel

Tintoretto, Jonah Cast Out By the Fish
Italian, 1577-1578
Venice, Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Paul Bril, Voyage of Jonah
Flemish, ca. 1600
Lille, Musée des Beaux-Arts

This is a copy by the artist of a painting done for the interior of the Scala Santa (Holy Stairs) at Saint John Lateran in Rome. 4

Nonetheless, the “sign of Jonah” remains as easily understood today as it has been at any time since the Gospel of Luke was written slightly over 1,900 years ago. 3

*  See also Matthew 12:38-42 and 16:1-4.  Excerpts from the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, second typical edition © 2001, 1998, 1997, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No portion of this text may be reproduced by any means without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

1. Jonah, Chapters 1-3 can be accessed at

2. Robin M. Jensen, “Early Christian Images and Exegesis”, in Spier, Jeffrey, et al., Picturing the Bible, The Earliest Christian Art, New Haven and Fort Worth, Yale University Press in association with the Kimball Art Museum, 2007, p. 71.

3. Most scholars place the date for the Gospel of Luke in the last decade of the first century, AD 80-90. See

4.  The Bril frescoes have recently been restored.  See: as well as and  The restoration has completely changed one's view of Bril's work.

© M. Duffy, 2012

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