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Jonah Marbles - VM - Victoria Emily Jones

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.

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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 ArtandTheology.org. 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.

ArtWay Visual Meditation 3 May 2020