The Prophet Jonah: The Iconography

Early Christians took the prophet Jonah to be a type of Christ because he was in the great fish for three days (Jonah 1-2), like Christ in the tomb.  Thus he appears often in early Christian art, especially funerary art where the hope of resurrection would be especially important.

The 4th-century ivory above is typical of the period. On the right his fellow passengers toss him into the sea, where a great fish comes to swallow him. On the far left the fish has delivered him up to the land. To the right of that, he sleeps under a gourd tree. The next morning, he learns from God the lesson of the gourd. (The lesson is pictured as an angel, Greek aggelos being the word for "messenger" or "message.")

As in all paleochristian images of Jonah under the gourd tree, his reclining pose is adapted from classical iconography that poses the sleeper frontally with legs crossed and one arm raised over the head while the weight of the body rests on the other arm and the left hip. Examples include images of Endymion and Selene and Bacchus and Ariadne.

There are no fewer than 57 images of this sequence of episodes in catacomb frescoes.1 Some samples are at right. The story is also presented in the form of sculpture (example).

After the paleochristian era the story's appeal to artists and donors diminishes considerably, though his image continues to be found among images of the prophets as a group (example).

Prepared in 2014 at Georgia Regents University by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English



1 Duchet-Suchaux, 198.


IN THE CATACOMBS (Click for full image and description):

Jonah is cast into the sea (See description page)

He is released by the fish (see description page)

He rests under the gourd tree (See description page)