A civilization that does not value its artistic expressions does not value itself. Makoto Fujimura

Jonah Swallowed and Cast Up

ArtWay Visual Meditation 3 May 2020

Jonah Swallowed and Cast Up

Out of the Belly of the Beast

by Victoria Emily Jones

Jonah was the most popular Old-Testament story in Christian art before Constantine, showing up mostly in funerary settings (painted on catacomb walls, carved into sarcophagi) but occasionally making domestic appearances, as is the likely origin of the four freestanding Jonah statuettes in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Discovered in Asia Minor in the 1960s, the so-called Jonah Marbles are thought to have decorated the house or ornamental fountain of a wealthy Christian family in the third century in what is today central Turkey.

The group follows the three-part visual sequence that had already become standard—Jonah swallowed by the sea monster, Jonah disgorged by the sea monster, and Jonah lying at rest under a gourd vine—and to it adds a fourth: Jonah standing in prayer. I will focus on the first two.

You’ll notice I said “sea monster.” While we’re accustomed to seeing the “great fish” of the biblical narrative rendered as a whale in children’s storybook illustrations, early Christians tended to imagine this creature as a ketos, the mythical Greek sea monster who was wolf-like up front (with a long muzzle, pointy ears, and usually forepaws) but whose bottom half was a serpentine fish tail. Ketos is the Greek word the Septuagint uses in the book of Jonah. Our anonymous sculptor had probably never seen a whale, but he had seen artistic representations of terrorizing ketoi on vases and mosaics and other objects, so it makes sense that he would have drawn on this established iconography.

Jonah, of course, was interpreted allegorically as a figure of Christ, who explicitly drew the comparison when responding to the Pharisees’ demand for a sign: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish,” Jesus said, “so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).

If Jonah’s being swallowed by the sea beast and lying in the darkness of its belly points forward to Jesus’s being swallowed by death and buried in a tomb, then Jonah’s being disgorged from the sea beast points forward to Jesus’s resurrection, his bursting forth out of death’s maw. And that’s just what we see, on an allegorical level, in the second Jonah Marble: Jesus as a heroic nude, arms raised in triumph, being ejected by the enemy who cannot hold him.

Moreover, if this is a picture of Christ in his death and resurrection, then it’s also, by extension, a picture of his followers. One reason Jonah was such a beloved subject among Christians throughout the Roman Empire during the persecutions is because his story, and its New-Testament fulfillment, reminded them of the ultimate powerlessness of the grave, of the hope they had of rising again on the last day. And it is a picture not only of what will be but also of what has been in baptism: the believer’s dying to sin and being raised to new life in Christ (Romans 6:1–11). The nakedness of Jonah emerging from the ketos strengthens its baptismal association: because nakedness is a phenomenon of both death and birth, the church at the time practiced, as several patristic writings indicate, naked baptisms.* The catechumen would strip off the clothes of the old self and would emerge from the ritual waters reborn, like a baby from the womb, to be clothed anew.

So Jonah Swallowed and Jonah Cast Up are multivalent Eastertide images that express both physical and spiritual realities, enfolding biblical history with Christian liturgy and doctrine and future promise.


Jonah Swallowed, made in Asia Minor, probably Phrygia (central Turkey), 280–90 CE. Marble, 50.4 × 15.5 × 26.9 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, USA.

Jonah Cast Up, made in Asia Minor, probably Phrygia (central Turkey), 280–90 CE. Marble, 41.5 × 36 × 18.5 cm. Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio, USA.

Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at Her educational background is in journalism, English literature, and music, and her current research focuses on ways in which the arts can stimulate renewed theological engagement with the Bible. She serves on the board of the Eliot Society, a faith-based arts nonprofit, and is a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture, an initiative of King’s College London.

* See Robin M. Jensen, Living Water: Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism. Leiden: Brill, 2010.



1. ARTWAY – Russian art historian Viktor Barashkov put together a very extensive list of travel tips for Russia. Even though right now we cannot travel, it is still worth taking a look at this list of museums, many of them with works by Christian artists, churches and convents and other sites of importance. Click here

* ARTWAY – In the Poetry & Art section we posted Luci Shaw’s poem ‘How?’ with the sculpture here and Today by Sebastian Wien. Click here

* ARTWAY – In the Music & Art section we posted a wonderful version of ‘Come, Holy Ghost’ sung by Nichlas Schaal and friends. Click here

2. REFORM MAGAZINE ART IN FOCUS – All the back issues of Reform Magazine’s Art in Focus page curated by Meryl Doney are now available online.

3. LUND CATHEDRAL – What is the Church’s role in developing alternative approaches to urban development? How can artists contribute to this discussion? Jes Fernie considers the ways in which these questions are being addressed through Råängen, an ambitious, long term program of commissions and public events run by Lund Cathedral, in southern Sweden.

4. PODCAST RICHARD HARRIES – How have modern and contemporary art responded to the visual narratives of Christianity? The former Bishop of Oxford speaks to Tim Marlow. During the 20th century, a number of major artists produced work responding to traditional Christian imagery. In this discussion, Professor Lord Richard Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, and the Royal Academy’s Artistic Director Tim Marlow consider the question of whether modernism has turned out to be a friend or foe of religious art today.

5. HOME ALONE TOGETHER – online exhibition by curators Aaron Rosen and S. Billie Mandle. Quarantine is quickly redefining and reconfiguring how people experience home. In this unsettled moment, artists can help draw our experiences into focus. Every week for the next three months, twenty-five artists from around the world will contribute one photograph from a different part of their living spaces. Together, these photographs—whether taken in a kitchen, bedroom, or looking out a window—will articulate a new, collective picture of home in a time of pandemic. What we see has become limited, but not how we see, or what we might discover. This is an exhibition about how time meets space, through the eyes of individuals. We invite you to experience this exhibition in multiple ways, by room, by week, or by artist.

6. NEW PROGRAM AT WESLEY THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY – Curating Community through the Arts: A New Doctor of Ministry (DMin) Track, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC, USA. Applications open. The arts generate and sustain communities. By studying and supporting the arts, faith leaders can discover new ways to bring people together, both in church and beyond. Explore the role of art, architecture, literature, and film in community formation using tools from biblical studies, theological aesthetics, and cultural studies. Teaching consists of short-stay courses, on-line learning, and study trips, tailored to the needs and schedules of professionals in DC and around the world. Apply now, places limited! Contact:  Dr. Aaron Rosen, Director, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion. Start: Jan 2021. Graduation anticipated: May 2025.

ArtWay is a website with resources for congregations and individuals concerned about linking art and faith.


Other recent meditations:
- May 2020: Doug Jaques: Angels Restrained
- May 2020: Anish Kapoor: Ascension
- May 2020: Rick Wieneke: Fountain of Tears
- April 2020: Karen Sewell: Awakenings I

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists