A youthful and relaxed Jonah sits proudly on the fish that swallowed him whole, holding aloft his garment, which partially covers his otherwise naked body. One foot rests triumphantly on the fish’s open mouth, treading on the jaws of death.
This Carrara marble statue is in the funerary chapel of Agostini Chigi in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. It was installed in a niche to the left of the altar. For a niche on the opposite side of the altar, Lorenzetto carved a statue of Elijah in the desert, a prophet whose life was also sustained by God’s gracious provision. In their respective narratives, both characters abandon themselves to death, and both express a wish to die (Jonah 4:8; 1 Kings 19:4). Yet both Jonah and Elijah also come to embody the victory of life over death: a potent message in the context of a funerary chapel.
In Christian tradition, the figure of Jonah became a powerful symbol of hope in the resurrection, following Jesus’s own reference to Jonah. Jesus chastises the scribes and Pharisees for requesting a ‘sign’—the only sign they will receive is the ‘sign of Jonah’ (Matthew 12:38–42; Luke 11:29–32). By this Jesus indicates that Jonah’s experience, of being swallowed by a fish and then spewed out, was a foreshadowing of Jesus’s own burial and resurrection. In accordance with this tradition, then, the statue has moved far away from the biblical text, which describes Jonah’s sudden and violent expulsion onto land in the vomit of a fish. Instead, Jonah is portrayed here as a victor in the battle against a symbolic representative of chaos and death. Here is no old and experienced prophet (we are not told Jonah’s age in the text); rather, the defined muscles on Jonah’s legs and torso emphasize his youth, vitality, and power over the grave.
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.