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Jonah Sarcophagus


Detail of the Jonah Sarcophagus. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz. Photo Marco Prins. Detail of the Jonah Sarcophagus. Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz. Photo Marco Prins.

This Christian sarcophagus was made in the third century and used to be in the Lateran Museum, but has been transferred to the Vatican. These photos were not made in Rome, however, but in Mainz, where a replica is displayed in the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum.

Although the scene left, to the top, represents Christ and Lazarus, the other scenes are from the Biblical book of Jonah.
  1. To the left, we see how the prophet pays the fare (Jonah 1.3)
  2. and is thrown into the sea (1.15).
  3. To the right, we can see how the big fish vomits out the prophet (2.10).
  4. Above the big fish, to the left, we see Jonah warning the Ninevites (3.4), and the Ninevites running to their king (3.5-6),
  5. and to the right, we can see the prophet sleeping in the shade of a plant (4.5).
The artist obviously thought that the third scene was the most important one, because it is set in a larger context: there's a child playing in the water, we can discern a crab, and there's a fisherman with a bird. This elaboration of the third scene is logical, because the artist -like so many other Christians- believed that the story of Jonah's return from the sea to the dry land was also a story about the resurrection.

It is possible that the fifth scene is also a reference to the afterlife - one gets the impression that it has to be read in two ways at the same time. In the first place, this is the prophet underneath the plant, in the second place, Jonah's nakedness, like Adam, represents man's return to Paradise.
© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 12 January 2007
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