Jonah by Lorenzetto


Jonah, 16th century, Marble, Chigi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, De Agostini Picture Library / A. De Gregorio / Bridgeman Images

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‘O Death Where Is Thy Sting?’

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

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.

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