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  • The Sign of Jonah
  • Constance Woods (bio)

On a recent trip to Rome, I was fortunate to join a very fine tour of the Vatican Museum led by an art historian. Once we were inside the Sistine Chapel, I noticed that several members of our group asked the same question: "Why Jonah?" That question is probably repeated hundreds of times a day by visitors to the chapel. As you stand facing the Last Judgment on the altar wall, you cannot help also taking in the colossal figure of Jonah positioned on the ceiling directly over the altar. Our guide explained that Jonah is usually regarded as a symbol of the Resurrection because he was swallowed by a whale and after three days was cast back out onto the shore. This interpretation is not peculiar to the art world, of course, but is very much part of the tradition of the Church, which goes back to the Church Fathers and indeed to Jesus himself, as Ross King's excellent history of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, reminds us:

Theologians regarded Jonah as a precursor of Christ and the resurrection, hence his position above the altar of the Sistine Chapel. Even Christ drew a direct comparison between himself and the prophet: "For as Jonah was three days and three [End Page 133] nights in the belly of the whale," he told the Pharisees, "so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth"

(Mt 12:40).1

That explanation, however, does not seem sufficient to account for Jonah's prominent position on the ceiling. The frescoes in the Sistine Chapel form a dazzling exhibit of biblical themes from the Old and New Testaments, yet the Resurrection of Christ is barely represented. Why then should Jonah be so imposing?

With the visit to the Sistine Chapel still fresh in my mind, I happened to be reading the Gospel of Matthew when it became suddenly clear that Jonah is more than a symbol of the Resurrection. I believe Michelangelo used Jonah not only as a figure of Christ crucified and resurrected, but also as a figure of Christ the Judge who is to come. Michelangelo's Jonah is seated in a direct line over the magnificent Christ, who has come into the world a second time at the end of history to pronounce the final judgment.

Perhaps it is because art historians and Scripture scholars alike are so accustomed to seeing Jonah as a type of the Resurrection that they have overlooked another aspect of Jonah, even though this other aspect is revealed by Christ in the very same breath with which he makes Jonah a symbol of the Resurrection. Here is the full response Jesus makes to the Pharisees when they demand a sign from heaven:

But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here."

(Mt 12:40–41) [End Page 134]

Jesus does not say that Jonah will arise at the judgment, but rather the people of Nineveh, who were converted by his preaching. Michelangelo's Jonah could be seen as a synecdoche, a kind of shorthand, for the whole population of Nineveh that will arise and assist Christ at the Last Judgment, condemning the generation that did not believe in him. Jesus makes Jonah a type of himself (that is, a prefigurement of himself) as judge when he says: "Behold, something greater than Jonah is here."

Luke's account omits the theme of the Resurrection, and concentrates entirely on judgment: as Jonah was a sign of judgment to Nineveh (a sign of their imminent annihilation if they did not repent), so the Son of Man will...


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