Jonah and the Whale, folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) by Unknown Iranian artist

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

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Faithful Repentance

Individual Commentary
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.

 

References

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