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The Prophet Jonah in Early Christian Art
Joan E. Barclay Lloid
The story of Jonah was a favourite theme in Early Christian art. The adventures of the prophet were painted on the walls of some of the oldest sections of the Roman catacombs — as early as ca. 200 A.D. in the crypt of Lucina at Callixtus, for example; similar representations continued to decorate the walls of cubicula well into the fourth century — they are still found in the Via Latina catacomb, 315-360. The story of Jonah occurs frequently in other Early Christian funerary art of the same era: carved in relief on sarcophagi, as in our fig. 1; in gold glass (a design cut out in gold leaf, pressed between two layers of glass), as in our fig. 2; and on some of the small terracotta lamps used to light the dark passageways of Christian underground cemeteries. Elsewhere representations of Jonah have survived in other art forms: in a set of four beautifully carved statuettes made in Asia Minor in the late third century (now on display in the Cleveland Museum); or, in the mosaic pavement of the cathedral of Aquileia, built shortly before 319.
In most cases the narrative was depicted in more than one scene, usually in three, but sometimes in two or four. There are also examples where only one episode is represented.
A typical Jonah cycle of three scenes is carved on the front of a late third century sarcophagus, now in the Vatican Museum, our fig. 1.' On the left is a ship in a stormy sea, its sail billowing in the wind; the captain holds the rudder, while pointing to his mate, who is casting the small, naked figure of Jonah into the deep; a third sailor waves his hands wildly in alarm. Jonah, with his arms stretched out in front of him, seems almost to be diving into the water, where an enormous sea-monster, with a huge head, a writhing, twisting body and a forked tail, which rises high above the waves, is waiting to devour him. In the next episode, which follows at the same level, the sea-monster, facing in the opposite direction, vomits Jonah on to the shore; the prophet's head and hands are raised as he emerges from the monster's mouth. Above this scene is a representation of Jonah resting under the gourd plant. The prophet is reclining with his right leg bent and crossed over his left, his right arm over his head; from the plant hang large leaves, tendrils and long, thin gourds.
Stylistically, Early Christian artists borrowed their forms and modes of representation from Ancient Roman art. The sea-monster, with its huge head, with fur and ears, its twisting body and forked tail, is derived from the Hellenistic ketos, a mythical sea-beast common in Greco-Roman art. The pose of Jonah resting beneath the gourd plant is taken from Ancient Roman representations of Endymion in his sleep of perpetual youth, or from carvings of Dionysos reclining under a vine pergola. (This does not mean that the Christian artist intended to confuse the myths of Endymion or Dionysos with the story of Jonah, but, seeking a model for a sleeping male figure, he borrowed that classical representation).
Above the ship in the first scene, within a roundel, is a half-bust; to the right at this level is another small half-figure, his cheeks puffed out from blowing (but his "born" has been destroyed). These two half-figures are related to another Ancient Roman artistic convention: they ate typical personifications, that on the right signifying the wind raised during the storm at sea, that in the roundel representing the sun and hence alluding to the calm that followed the jettison of the rebellious prophet. This manner of representing the sun and moon, seasons and winds as small human figures or busts was typical of Ancient Roman art and was taken over by the Early Christian sculptor. Indeed, much of the artistic vocabulary of Early Christian art was derived directly from the contemporary pagan art of the period.
That Jonah is shown under a gourd plant links this image with the Septuagint version of the story (the Vulgate speaks of ivy). No doubt this translation was used when the Christian artistic representation of the scene was first evolved. On the whole, the essential features of such images did not change much in the third and fourth centuries. Each scene became an abbreviated pictogram, containing a few essential features, that were easily read and remembered, making Early Christian art of the third and early fourth centuries a simple visual language. For many complex episodes narrated in the Bible only one abbreviated image was shown, but in the case of Jonah it was normal to depict a cycle of several scenes, most often three.
The sarcophagus shows a typical Jonah trilogy. The three scenes represented here are those most commonly found where the story of the prophet is depicted in Early Christian art. Occasionally other episodes in the Jonah story were represented: in the fourth century the prophet was sometimes shown enraged at the Lord's mercy on Nineveh; in the Catacomb of St. Sebastian in Rome there is an unusual scene of Jonah clambering up the shore, after being disgorged by the sea-monster; one statue in the Cleveland set represents the prophet standing with his arms raised in prayer; in only one case known to me has the artist shown the effect of the prophet's preaching in Nineveh — beside Jonah is a crowd of people with their hands raised in prayer, no doubt signifying the citizens' conversion.
On the whole the prophet's commission to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh was left out of Early Christian artistic representations of the story of Jonah, despite the fact that this is central to the theme of the Old Testament Book of Jonah and despite references to it in the Gospels of Matthew (12:41) and Luke (11:29-32). More importance seems to have been given to the statement in Matthew (12:40), which likens Jonah's experiences with the sea-monster to Christ's death and resurrection:
"For as Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights".
The prophet is a very early Old Testament type of Christ, that is, his experiences were seen by the Early Church as pre-figuring events in the life of Jesus. This may account for the popularity of the story in Early Christian art. Later, it was common for Christians to see Old Testament figures or events as types or precursors of the New Testament. In art such complementary scenes from the old and new dispensations were often placed side by side or opposite each other to emphasize their connection. In the third and early fourth centuries, however, such parallel images were not customary and an Old Testament type of Christ like Jonah would be portrayed with other scenes from the Old and New Testaments, arranged in an apparently arbitrary way. The story of Jonah often appears with scenes from the Old Testament like Noah in the ark, the sacrifice of Abraham, Daniel in the lions' den, the three young men in the fiery furnace or Susanna and the elders, and with scenes from the New Testament like the Good Shepherd, the raising of Lazarus, the healing miracles of Christ, the multiplication of the loaves, or the marriage feast at Cana.
Besides being a type of Christ, Jonah seems to have been considered a forerunner or example of the individual Christian in his relationship to the Almighty and in his hope of salvation, resurrection and eternal happiness. The story of the prophet, ranging through disobedience, repentance, prayer, redemption, obedience, rest and a final understanding of God's mercy and love for all of His creation, provided a fine example for a member of the Early Church.
Based on a long Jewish tradition going back to ca. 200 B.C., the catechesis of the Early Church presented Old Testament figures as exempla: outstanding men and women to be remembered and imitated by the faithful. Just as the Books of Ecclesiasticus (chapters 44-50) and I Maccabees (2:51-64) praised and remembered illustrious men of past generations, the Letter to the Hebrews (chapter 11) gave Hebrew ancestors as examples of men outstanding in faith. Among early post-Apostolic writings the Letter of Saint Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (written ca. 96 AD.) used many such exempla from the Old Testament to illustrate both obedience and disobedience to God.
The story of Jonah was often shown in funerary art. In the Apostolic Constitutions (Migne, PG, 5, 7, 843) Jonah is mentioned with other Old Testament characters as an example of salvation and deliverance from death:
"He (God), who after three days dragged Jonah alive and intact from the belly of the sea-monster, who drew out the three young men from the furnace of Babylon and Daniel from the lions' den, will not lack strength to tear us, too, away from death°.
A Christian prayer for the dying, the Commendatio Animae, known in manuscripts only from ca. 700 A.D. but probably much older, cries out to the Lord to save the dying person as He saved Enoch and Elijah from the death common to humankind, Noah from the flood, Abraham from Ur of the Chaldaeans, Job from his sufferings, Isaac from his father's hand, Lot from the destruction of Sodom, Moses from Pharoah, Daniel from the lions' den, the three young men from the fiery furnace, Susanna from the false accusation, David from King Saul and Goliath, Peter and Paul from prison and Saint Tecla from terrible torments. Although the manuscript sources of this prayer are of a late date, the form of the invocations and many of the Old Testament exempla are paralleled in Jewish prayers on solemn public fast days, dating from ca. 200 B.C. and still a living tradition in Early Christian times. It seems likely that the Christian liturgy for the dying was derived from this older, Judaic prayer tradition; the choice of many Old Testament figures in Early Christian art was probably influenced by the liturgy.
One episode in the Jonah cycle, which was frequently depicted on its own, was the scene of the prophet under the gourd plant (fig. 2). It is not immediately related to the idea of salvation, deliverance or Christ's resurrection. Rather, it appears to refer to the idea of eternal rest in paradise, another theme appropriate in a funerary context. Although same scholars have sought ancient pagan sources of inspiration for this scene, the concept is close to the Christian prayer for the dead:
"Eternal rest grant unto them, 0 Lord) Andlet perpetual light shine upon them! May they rest in peace)"
Again the early history of how this prayer entered the Christian liturgy for the dead is obscure, but the words are taken from the late Jewish 'apocryphal' Book of Esdras which formed part of the Septuagint Greek Bible, although the first two chapters are, in fact, Christian (4 Esdr. 2:34,35)
The story of Jonah was an important theme in Early Christian art where it was depicted more frequently and in more episodes than any other Old Testament subject. Although several features of the artistic vocabulary were borrowed from Ancient Roman art, the deeper meaning of the scenes related the Jonah cycle to Christ's death and resurrection, or to the Christian's hope of salvation and eternal rest. The use of Old Testament figures like Jonah as paradigms of salvation or miraculous deliverance seems to go back to the concepts and prayers of inter-testamentary Judaism. As such, this theme is well worth studying in the context of Jewish-Christian relations.
* Dr. Joan Barclay Lloyd is at present lecturer in Art History in Australia, at La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, where she lectures in Ancient Roman, Early Christian and Medieval Art and Architecture. Born in Zambia, she studied in London, obtaining her Ph.D. with a thesis on the architecture of the medieval church and conventual buildings of S. Clemente, Rome.