Jonah – son of Amittai of the tribe of Zebulun, Israel – lived in the north of this region at the time of Jeroboam II. His mission was to admonish the inhabitants of the capital of Assyria, Nineveh, to repent from their cruelties, but without success. Nahum subsequently predicted its destruction. Felling that he could be killed, Jonah fled to Tarshish. During a storm at sea he was swallowed by a whale and remained there for three days and three nights. To him is attributed the writing of the book of Jonah of the Old Testament, dated as 585 BC.
Jonah, arranged on the left of the parapet of the churchyard entrance, may be recognized from the rising of the stairs, for his head highlighted on the stretched neck. However, it is the rear view that attracts the look, because of the presence of the whale snaking behind him and settled at his feet, with gaping jaws and two jets of water coming out of its spiracles.
Two obvious attributes, such as animals, are quite rare, arranged in the same line of vision, approaching creatures of the jungle and of the water world. This text of Jonah with the fish or whale is the most popular and well known, hence the attraction to the figure. The artist, aware of the iconography, solved it by inserting sinuous lines and roundness in the whale’s smooth body, in comparison with the almost straight line of the phylactery, the parchment with the Biblical text, and the two folds of the mantle, one vertical and the second overlaid and oblique, which penetrates another fold of the mantle at the height of the hand and the whale’s dorsal fin. The plans set, overlapping rational elements – folds – and organic– caudal fin and the prophet’s full head of hair below the cap –, make this rear the most elaborate among the twelve sculptures.
The movement required to admire Jonah goes from left to right, from the whale figure up the sculpture that presents complex solutions of figure to be seen in full. There are four visual points, as follows: two on the hands and arms, forming a sloping line, from the closed hand up to the arm, rising up with his free hand to start the gesture. The second line is also tilted, but on its extension, and fulfills the role of verticalizing the figure, virtually joining the two heads. While the whale is moving out of the water, the human figure expands the gesture of the arm, hand and neck.
From Jonah’s position, Aleijadinho initiates the expansion of the masses and of the excessive Baroque gestures. Turning the forehead towards the divine light is a bold gesture, although the cap hides his head. The raised head is caused by the act of emerging from the waters in the pursuit of life after pleading for it – the resurrection of Christ after three days, when he came down to Inferus. In medieval engravings, Jonah is represented beside the tomb of Christ, among the guards.
The story of Jonah with the fish or whale is more popular than that of Prophet Daniel with the lions. Artists from the early Christian age already admired this fabulous story that foreshadowed the coming of Christ and his death, when he was encased in the heart of the earth. Jonah is also related with the Flood waters, the baptismal waters, and resurrection to a new life. Michelangelo painted him in one of the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (1508-1512) as a young man sitting, half-naked, with a big fish beside him. Gustave Doré, in one of his engravings that illustrate the Bible (1866), put Jonah already safe on dry land while the big fish returned to the sea gushing water. He is also in the church of the Society of Jesus of Quito, Ecuador, where there are representations of the prophets based on engravings of Santiago Sebastián – having as source drawings of the Flemish Vos (1532-1603), recorded by Antonio Wierix (1552-1624) – edited by Gerhard de Jode (1509-1598).
Iconologically, a second intention of Aleijadinho would have been to allude to Tiradentes’s hanging (outstretched neck) and the whale (dolphin present in the shield of the city of Rio de Janeiro, where he was imprisoned and hanged) (see the correspondence between the prophets and the Inconfidentes).
Swallowed by a whale, I remain three days and three nights in the belly of the fish; then I come to Nineveh. Jonah, Cap. 2.
In Latin: ACETO ABSOR/PUS LAATEO NO TESQUI DIESQUE/TRES BENTRE IN/PICIS TUM NI NIUEM VENIO. IONAS/CAP.2.
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