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)