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 main movement of the composition takes the eye from the ship down to the first sea monster and then up from the second monster to the scene of Jonah sleeping in blissful innocence beneath the gourd tree. In light of Matthew 12:40, "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," this movement is clearly about the Resurrection, not only of Christ but of all the faithful. Jonah goes into the maw naked just as catechumens go naked into the baptismal pool, and he emerges into a new life of remarkable abundance, symbolized by the man and boy fishing among a rich variety of marine life, the shady leaves and bulging fruit of the gourd tree, and the outsize sheep in the upper right.

Also suggestive of the abundant life is the little Noah scene above the second head of the monster. The episode from Noah's story that the artist has chosen is the dove's gift of an olive branch. The olive is among the pre-eminent crops in Mediterranean culture, providing food and light for every home. It comes to Noah after the flood, "whereunto baptism, being of the like form, now saveth you also (1 Peter 3:21)."

The scenes that surround this exposition on Resurrection repeat and deepen it. The saving water of Baptism is prefigured in the water Moses educes from the rock in the upper register (Exodus 17:1-7). 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 represented there, the central figure being the resurrected Jesus.

To the left of Moses' water miracle we see the faces of Juno and Aeolus, who conspired to raise a storm in an attempt to shipwreck Aeneas and keep him from reaching his new homeland. Jonah 1:4 says it was God who sent the storm, but the artist ignores this and makes a point about the malign forces that strive to keep mankind from their true home.

On the two ends of the upper register we see two temple-like structures. On the left Jesus calls Lazarus from his tomb. On the right a shepherd leads two sheep from a larger structure with a classical pediment and clerestory windows. Fuchs (55) reads the shepherd as Death and thus sees the parallel scenes as contrastive, but it is simpler to see the shepherd scene as complementary: both the shepherd and the Good Shepherd call their flock from the world represented by the temples into a new life.

The shepherd scene also completes the vision of abundance on the right side of the sarcophagus. The sheep (which are nearly as large as the shepherd) represent animal life, the gourd tree vegetable, and the lower register birds and fish.

The two fishermen on the left end of the lower register clearly parallel the man and boy fishing on the right end. Fish are in their sea too, and in the basket, but the scene lacks the variety and richness of the one on the right. Considering that Lazarus is just above them, there seems to be a sub-theme that the "resurrection" experienced in this life is only a prelude to the abundant life God has in store. For example, Lazarus is still tightly wound in his burial cloths. And the Jonah figure emerging from the monster does not land on the shore as Jonah 2:11 says he did. He is still in the water, reaching with both arms toward the fisherman, whose attention is called to him by the pointing boy.

See the following pages for detail photos and further discussion:

View this image in full resolution.
Read more about 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.