EARLY CHRISTIAN SCULPTOR, Italian
(active late 3rd century in Rome)

Sarcophagus of Jonah

280s
Stone
Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican

The reliefs on this sarcophagus depicts scenes from the life of Jonah.

The story of Jonah, the Hebrew prophet who was thrown overboard the ship in which he was fleeing from god, swallowed by a whale and the spat out onto dry land after three days, was popular in early Christianity because of the parallel with the resurrection of Christ. The figure of Jonah came to replace the symbolic figure of the fisherman since he prefigured Christ and his resurrection. The story, often depicted in the ancient Christian world, was divided into three or four scenes: Jonah cast into the sea, Jonah swallowed then regurgitated by the whale, and Jonah resting under the arbour and the withered gourd.

The story of Jonah reached Rome early and appeared simultaneously both in sculpture and painting. In the Sarcophagus of Jonah the story of Jonah occupies the entire lower register and part of the upper, where it is accompanied by scenes of the raising of Lazarus and St Peter's imprisonment in Rome.

On the bottom frieze the prohet is cast into the water and swallowed by the great whale. The next scenes show the monster vomiting Jonah up onto dry land, and the prophet resting in the shade of the giant gourd. They are separated by a miniature portrayal of Noah in the ark. The resurrection of Lazarus and St Peter's miracle of the spring are shown in the upper register.