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Pieter Lastman

Jonah and the Whale, 1621, Oil on oak panel, 36 x 52.1 cm, Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, mkp.M 193, © Kunstpalast - Walter Klein - ARTOTHEK

Lorenzetto

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

Unknown Iranian artist

Jonah and the Whale, folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), c.1400, Ink, opaque watercolour, gold, and silver on paper, 337 x 495 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1933, 33.113, www.metmuseum.org

‘You Brought Up My Life From The Pit’

Comparative Commentary by

In these three interpretations of Jonah’s deliverance from the ‘big fish’, we are invited to reflect on his experience through three contrasting lenses. In Pieter Lastman’s interpretation, the moment of deliverance is the sudden and violent release from the fish’s belly, as Jonah is cast towards the rocks by divine fiat. The God of heaven, maker of sea and dry land, is a God of power—master of all that flies in the air, creeps on the ground, or swims in the oceans.

After spending three days and nights in the belly of the sea creature, in the depths of the sea, Jonah prays a psalm of thanksgiving (2:2–9). The psalm includes a humorous parody of some of the conventional language of lament psalms: ‘The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains’ (2:5 NRSV). The threatening imagery of sea and waves to depict distress in the Psalms has become a reality for Jonah! It also, conveniently for Jonah, allows him to place the blame for his predicament squarely on God’s shoulders: ‘You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas’! (2:3). Is this really a psalm of repentance, or rather a self-righteous defence of his actions, and a cry against the wickedness of those ‘who worship vain idols’ and ‘forsake true loyalty’ (2:8)? Lastman’s Jonah, despite his age and experience, is still learning the lessons of human obedience and divine providence, hands flailing, naked as from birth. We are invited to identify with Jonah, throwing his arms up in helplessness towards heaven.

The ‘conversation’ between the psalm in chapter 2 and Lastman’s depiction of verse 10, brings to light the unresolved temporal ambiguity of the Hebrew poetry in the psalm, which is difficult to interpret. If the present tense is intended, Jonah is crying out to God for deliverance from the belly of the sea creature. If we read it in the past tense, however, Jonah is already offering a hymn of thanksgiving within the belly of the fish for his deliverance from death by the fish. Lastman’s interpretation chimes with traditional Christian interpretation, that Jonah’s journey to the depths of the sea in the belly of the fish and his return to land three days later symbolized Christ’s burial and resurrection. Therefore, the moment of deliverance is indeed the moment of re-birth from the ‘belly of Sheol’ (2:2).

For the fourteenth-century Muslim illustrator, however, the moment of deliverance has already taken place in Jonah’s repentance, before he emerges from the fish’s mouth. If God can forgive Jonah, he can forgive us also. The divine wings of protection and blessing dominate the scene, reassuring us of God’s presence even in the depths. Jonah’s serenity, even in his vulnerability—such a contrast from Lastman’s depiction of the scene—is both striking and inspiring. We are faced with a humbled, wise, and patient Jonah, thankful for his new life by God’s grace. Rather different from the scared, angry, and resentful Jonah of the biblical text, who is scornful of God’s grace and mercy when it is extended to others (4:2), much like the elder brother in the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32).

In the biblical text, God is in control of every element of the narrative: the wind upon the sea (1:4); the lots cast by the sailors (1:7); the appearance of the fish to swallow and then spew out Jonah (2:1); his decision to spare the Ninevites (3.10); the plant growing as a shelter for Jonah (4:6), and the worm appointed to devour it (4:7). On the ship in the storm, Jonah learns the hard way that he cannot escape from the presence of God, and yet it is the very assurance of God’s presence that he seeks when he is in the belly of the fish (2:2). The Jonah of the Jami al-Tavarikh is inscribed with lines from the poet Sa’adi’s didactic work, reflecting on life and how it ought to be lived, in the knowledge that God ordains creation and history. From this Jonah we can learn the humility of patience and repentance, and the power of the God of heaven, who makes the sea, the sea creatures, the land, and the plants. 

Lorenzetto’s statue takes us a step further away from the text, to see in Jonah the power of the God of heaven over life and death. The moment of deliverance is not the expulsion from the fish but the vanquishing of death itself. Jonah’s proud stance gives us confidence that we too can trample on our enemies, and gives us hope in redemption and the resurrection of the dead.

Next exhibition: Micah 1