Jonah and the Whale
‘Deliverance Belongs to the Lord!’
Commentary by Alison Gray
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)
‘O Death Where Is Thy Sting?’
Commentary by Alison Gray
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.
Commentary by Alison Gray
A naked and serene Jonah in a quasi-foetal position emerges from the mouth of a benign-looking fish. Jonah stretches out a hand towards his tunic, proffered by a winged angelic figure at right. This angel casually steps on the back of the fish, in case of any uncertainty about who is in control. The tree just visible at the left of the composition may be intended to evoke the gourd commissioned by God to provide shelter for Jonah’s head (Jonah 4). It may be that the artist wants us to reflect on the incident of the gourd as another occasion on which Jonah was led to consider both God’s mercy and God’s control of history.
This illustration, presenting a blend of different aspects of Jonah’s story from the Qur'an, comes from Rashid al-Din’s Jamiʿ al-Tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), a two-volume history—of the Mongol dynasty, and of the world. It is a fine example of fourteenth-century Persian illumination, which combines calligraphy with illustration. On Jonah’s body, in Persian script, is a line of poetry from The Gulistan (The Rose Garden) by the thirteenth-century Iranian poet, Sa'adi:
The sun went to the darkness
Jonah went into the fish’s mouth
Jonah (Junus in Arabic), is the only one of the biblical minor prophets mentioned by name in the Qur'an. His story is narrated (in Surah 37) as an example of faithfulness: he was saved because he repented and called on God for deliverance. The current state of the work means that Jonah’s body looks somewhat patchy—rather fitting for the Islamic tradition in which Jonah’s skin was believed to have been afflicted by the acidic gastric juices of the fish’s stomach.
If Rashid al-Din’s Jamiʿ al-Tawarikh was intended to be ‘a demonstration of a divine and universal sovereignty’ (Kamola 2018: 6), the illustration certainly emphasizes this. Jonah’s pose and expression convey the patient acceptance of his experience, and the setting of plants and flowers overlaying the sea is one of calm and ordered beauty. God is in control, bringing new life out of chaos.
Kamola, Stefan. 2018. ‘A Sensational and Unique Novelty: The Reception of Rashid al-Din’s World History’, Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, DOI: 10.1080/05786967.2018.1544836
Pieter Lastman :
Jonah and the Whale, 1621 , Oil on oak panel
Jonah, 16th century , Marble
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
‘You Brought Up My Life From The Pit’
Commentary by Alison Gray
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 Jamiʿ al-Tawarikh 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.