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A Whale of a Tale
The many artistic renderings of Jonah and the whale
When I was in Catholic elementary school, it seemed like we spent a disproportionate amount of time in religion class talking about the prophet Jonah. It was clearly a favorite Bible story for my teachers. But when I look at the story of Jonah now, it doesn’t feel especially kid-friendly. Here’s the basic summary:
God gets really mad at the city of Nineveh for its “wickedness.” God tells Jonah to preach against the city, but Jonah wimps out and sails someplace else instead.
God doesn't like this, so he sends storms to attack the ship Jonah is on. The crew of the ship begs God not to make them throw Jonah overboard; God insists that they drown his prophet.
The sailors throw Jonah into the sea; a giant whale eats him. Somehow, he stays alive in the belly of the beast. Jonah begs God for forgiveness, and God convinces the whale to vomit him out after three days.
Jonah finally goes to Nineveh and promises its citizens that God will destroy them for their wickedness. Nineveh repents, and God spares them.
This, for some reason, makes Jonah mad! He wanted to see Nineveh destroyed. Then Jonah gets very emo — “Take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” He retreats into the countryside and stays there even though it’s really hot.
God causes a plant to grow and shade Jonah — but then gets a worm to kill the plant so that Jonah bakes in the sun again. Jonah gets very hot and realizes that God loved the people of Nineveh just as he loved the shade from that plant. The end.
Like a lot of parts of the Bible, the story of Jonah is weirder and darker than I remember from 4th-grade religion class. It’s a tale of a harsh and inscrutable God who inflicts immense suffering on his deeply flawed followers. So why did we spend so much time on it in school?
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It’s the whale, of course! My teachers deemed the story of Jonah to be a great one for little kids because it had an animal in it. We could color in a smiling, fat whale, drawing Jonah in its plump little belly.
But this isn’t necessarily how people in the past envisioned the story of Jonah. So let’s take a look at the sometimes silly, sometimes terrifying ways that people have portrayed Jonah and his aquatic nemesis throughout history.
First things first — the Jonah story isn’t necessarily about a whale, no matter how many cute worksheets kids fill out in Sunday school. The Book of Jonah merely refers to a “big fish,” which has been interpreted in all sorts of ways over the centuries. In recent centuries, as it became clear that whales and other fish probably can’t swallow humans whole and then spit them out, there was a scramble by Biblical scholars to identify the exact species of sea creature that swallowed Jonah.
Some of the earliest artistic depictions of Jonah show him being swallowed by neither a fish nor a whale but by some kind of mythical sea creature. A Roman sarcophagus from the 3rd century CE depicts it this way, with Jonah doing a kind of head-first dive right into the monster’s maw:
A pair of elegant sculptures from around the same time show Jonah slipping head-first into the monster’s gullet:
And, having done a somersault in the monster’s belly, here he is on his way out. He looks pretty pleased to be getting out of there:
This 4th-century version of the sea monster looks kind of crocodilian; I don’t know how Jonah can be expected to survive those teeth:
All of those ancient renderings of the Jonah story look pretty scary, partially because of the mythical, dragon-like sea monsters. By the medieval period, however, most artists were depicting Jonah’s swallower as a fish or whale, and, a lot of the time, the effect was goofy rather than frightening.
Here’s an illustration from a French Bible dating to the 1300s in which Jonah comes out of the fish in prayer position:
He apparently went into the fish’s belly the same way, according to this medieval Swedish painting:
I especially like this one, in which Jonah has had time (and light) inside the fish’s belly to get some writing done. What a master of productivity!
This one also has Jonah ready to write, but somehow he’s popped out of the whale’s blowhole, riding it like it’s a carnival ride? And the whale seems quite happy about it?
I think this depiction of the fish as rather exhausted is perhaps more realistic. If I had accidentally swallowed a human whole and vomited him up after 3 days, this is the look I’d have in my eyes:
I also enjoy this Armenian hymnal from the 1600s. Jonah looks so relaxed even though he’s been thrown overboard and eaten by a fish!
The story of Jonah (or Yunus, in Arabic) also shows up in the Quran, and there were depictions of him throughout the Islamic world, especially in Persia. The Islamic versions of these images feature pretty straightforward fish, rather than monsters or whales.
In this illustration from the 1400s, Jonah is being vomited by the fish directly under the gourd tree that God would create to shade him:
And here’s another version of the same scene, painted a few decades later, showing Jonah already on the shore while the fish (a catfish, maybe?) lurks in the water below:
You may have noticed that Jonah is naked, or nearly naked, in a lot of these late medieval ones. No, I don’t know why, either — maybe he just didn’t want to get his clothes wet…
Modern artists found Jonah to be an enticing subject, too. Armed with new techniques, they did their best to depict the darker side of the story. These modern images were about the Biblical story, but they were also about the very human emotions of terror and smallness in the face of a cruel God and the vast powers of nature.
This painting from the 1600s, attributed to Carlo Antonio Tavella, plays up the dangerous storm that God sent to sink Jonah’s boat (the whale waits patiently at the bottom left):
This 1621 painting, by Pieter Lastman, has perhaps the scariest giant fish of all. Note how Jonah looks skyward, in terror or thanks, to God as he is vomited onto the shore:
Finally, Albert Pinkham Ryder, painting in the late 1800s, gives us this version of the story. There’s no dorky-looking fish, just a terrified, lonely figure sinking beneath the roiling waves.
For almost two millennia, artists have been trying to render this improbable tale. Some were pretty successful at depicting aspects of the story; others (I’m looking at you, medieval illustrators) struggled to make the tale of a man swallowed by a whale seem real.
But how do you depict a giant fish vomiting a man up onto shore, anyway? They don’t teach that in art school.
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