Hurtling through the air, the twisted, nude figure of Jonah takes centre stage in this vivid painting. Pieter Lastman captures the moment just after his violent ejection from the belly of the fish, and just before he reaches dry land (Jonah 2:10). Jonah is being spewed out from the fish’s enormous mouth, arms helplessly outstretched and eyes looking heavenwards. Having just declared ‘Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ (Jonah 2:9 NRSV), Jonah here experiences that very power of divine deliverance from the depths of the sea. Yet he is delivered in order to be set reluctantly back on his prophetic course to proclaim God’s judgement on Nineveh. He is set free to be obedient. In the painting, the ‘dry land’ looks almost as menacing as the sea, as his body is catapulted towards the rocks.
Lastman’s interpretations of biblical narrative scenes are characterized by their expressive, dramatic figures, and this work is no exception. There is a strong contrast of light and shade, drawing the eye towards the brightness of Jonah’s body as he emerges from the deathly shades of the sea creature. In such light, Jonah’s dramatic experience at this point in the story is portrayed as a moment of revelation, and of new life, contrasted with the depths of Sheol that have held him captive for three days.
Intriguingly, this bold painting was originally designed for a wealthy merchant in Amsterdam as a sign for his shop—perhaps selling the kind of rich cloth that is draped over Jonah’s otherwise bare body (DuBois 2011). The cloth’s vibrant red colour is almost like a tongue wrapped around Jonah.
The sudden expulsion from the fish (‘vomited’ in the Hebrew text) is a denuding experience, a ‘re-birth’. There is a sense of Jonah’s childlike vulnerability conveyed by the painter’s decision to show him naked, and yet there is hope in the way he is bathed in the light of God’s mercy. He has been given another chance to live.
Something he later wishes to deny the people of Nineveh.
DuBois, Kathrin. 2011. ‘Jonas und der Wal’, in Die Sammlung Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf: Von Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast)
2 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2saying,
“I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and thou didst hear my voice.
3For thou didst cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood was round about me;
all thy waves and thy billows
passed over me.
4Then I said, ‘I am cast out
from thy presence;
how shall I again look
upon thy holy temple?’
5The waters closed in over me,
the deep was round about me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me for ever;
yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God.
7When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to thee,
into thy holy temple.
8Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
9But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to thee;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
10And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.