The Jonah Sarcophagus

3rd quarter of the 3rd century
Museo Pio Cristiano, inventory 31448

This is perhaps the most famous and extensively studied of the early Christian sarcophagi. This page will discuss the composition of the image as a whole, followed by links to detail photos and discussions of the individual scenes.

The most prominent element in the composition is the central pair of scenes in which Jonah is first thrown into the maw of the sea monster1 and then released by it onto the shore. This sets Resurrection as the primary theme of the piece, given Jesus' typological interpretation of Jonah's experience: "For as Jonas was in the whale's belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights" (Matthew 12:40).

Resurrection is also the obvious subject of the scene with Lazarus in the upper left corner. The temple-like structure from which Lazarus has emerged parallels the little temple in the upper right corner. Fuchs (55) suggests that the shepherd standing outside that temple may be intended as an image of Death "shepherding" the unrighteous into Sheol (Psalm 49:15), forming a contrast with Jesus the Good Shepherd on the opposite corner.

This would not be the only dark shadow cast on this theme. The storm at sea that led the sailors to cast Jonah overboard is caused by God in the scripture, but above the sail we see the faces of Juno and Aeolus, the gods who roiled the seas against Aeneas. (Aeolus can be identified by his wings and puffing cheeks, Juno by her characteristic diadem.)

If Fuchs (56-68) is right in her interpretation of the figures to the right of Moses, and I believe she is, Resurrection is also the theme of that scene, which she takes to be a conflation of the Emmaus narrative in Luke and the Resurrection narrative in Matthew and Luke.

A secondary theme is the importance of water in the scheme of salvation. This involves the small portrait of Noah in his ark just above the fish that is releasing Jonah. I Peter 3:20-21 interprets the ark as a type of Baptism. As Noah takes the olive branch from the dove, he looks up to the left toward Moses' water miracle at Massah and Meribah (Exodus 17:1-7), so that we may take that scene also as a figure of Baptism.

The fishermen portrayed at the left and right of the lower register complete this theme both by emphasizing the abundant life in the water and by reminding the viewer of Jesus' call to Peter and Andrew, "Come ye after me, and I will make you to be fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19, c.f. Mark 1:17).

The reclining nude on the right side is Jonah resting in the shade of the gourd tree God provided to give him shade. This scene is also included with Jonah images in the catacombs. Its purpose may be to remind the viewer of the plenitude of God's mercy as that topic is developed in Jonah 4.

See the following pages for detail photos and further discussion:

This image in full resolution
More of Jonah

Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 For the terms used by Greek, Latin, and English texts in naming the creature, see this note on the second column of the Jonah page.