Yonah and the Fish in Art


Yonah 1-2 describe how Yonah is thrown overboard into the sea, swallowed by a fish, and finally released.The three artworks displayed here, Jan Brueghel the Elder's oil painting,1 Giulio Romano's ink drawing2 and Joseph Asarfati's miniature from the Cervera Bible,3 all depict various aspects of the miracle. They differ in their portrayals of each of the main characters, raising questions about Yonah's state of mind when entrapped, the intended function of the fish, and the impact of the incident on the sailors.

Contrasting Images

Jan Brueghel

Brueghel's image is almost a seascape, with most of the canvas filled with the blue-greens of the rough sea, menacing waves, and dark, cloud-filled sky.  In the left background, a series of uninviting, jagged rocks tower out of the sea, lending an air of danger to the composition. In the foreground, opposite the cliffs, the lighting illuminates the prophet and fish. A red garbed, penitent Yonah walks out of the massive critter towards the empty shore with his hands clasped in prayer.  The fish itself, with its oversized face and droopy eyes, looks more comic than ominous.

Giulio Romano

This drawing is the busiest of the three images.  In the background, the sailors look out over their boat's edge, gesturing toward the water into which they have thrown Yonah. One stands with his arms raised, apparently distraught over the deed. The foreground depicts the end of the scene, presenting a petrified Yonah being spewed forth unceremoniously from a fantastical fish.  The creature is dragon-like, with a long tail, bird's head, and crocodile jaws. To the left, several onlookers edge away in fear, their arms outstretched as if to keep the terrifying monster away.

Joseph Asarfati

This miniature manages to tell the story with a minimum of detail. At the top of the image, three sailors sit in the small boat barely looking at Yonah, apparently indifferent to his danger. The prophet is depicted beneath them, and contrary to expectations, heads not into a raging sea, but straight from the boat into the mouth of the fish. He, like the sailors, appears calm, exhibiting no signs of distress or attempts to save himself. In contrast to the other images, this fish is fairly realistic looking, and hardly bigger than Yonah himself.

Relationship to the Biblical Text

The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:

Yonah's Feelings

While Brueghel's Yonah emerges from the fish with his hands raised in a gesture of prayer, looking submissive and penitent, Romano's Yonah appears terrified, and Asarfati's prophet is apathetic.  What was Yonah feeling before, during, and after being delivered by the fish? When thrown overboard, did he welcome death, as suggested by R. Natan in Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishmael Shemot 12:1?  When swallowed, did he view the fish as an instrument of salvation or of further punishment? Compare R"E of BeaugencyYonah 2:1-2About R. Eliezer of Beaugency who suggests that Yonah was thankful rather than frightened within the fish, with Abarbanel Yonah 2About R. Yitzchak Abarbanelwho assumes that Yonah's terrifying entrapment led him to repent. For discussion, see Yonah's Prayer.

Who Witnessed the Miracle?

Both Romano and Asarfati portray bystanders witnessing the miracle (either the sailors or people on shore), while Brueghel's painting implies that there were none. The text is silent on the matter but the suggestion might help answer an open question in the text.  What led the people of Nineveh to believe in the words of a foreign, unknown prophet?  R"Y KimchiSefer HaShorashim s.v. ברחAbout R. Yosef Kimchi suggests that the boatmen had arrived in Nineveh and shared the miracles at sea,4 providing the necessary sign for the Ninevites to recognize him as a true prophet.5 Ibn EzraYonah First Commentary 1:2About R. Avraham ibn Ezra, in contrast, suggests that the people had always been monotheists, leading them to trust in Yonah. See The Repentance of Nineveh.

The Fish

The fish in both Brueghel and Romano's images is a fantastical, massive creature, while that in the Cervera Bible is small and realistic-looking. What type of fish swallowed Yonah? Was it scary or mundane looking, miraculous6 or natural? Though many assume Yonah was swallowed by a whale, Tanakh itself reveals very little about the creature. The MidrashYonah 1:12About Yalkut Shimoni, though, fills in the gap. 

Always attuned to the nuances of the text, it notes that Yonah 2:1 speaks of a "דָּג גָּדוֹל", while verse 2 mentions "מִמְּעֵי הַדָּגָה". This leads to the suggestion that originally Yonah was swallowed by a giant fish which provided Yonah with so much space and comfort that he felt no need to pray for deliverance. As such, Hashem had him expelled into a pregnant female (דָּגָה) who was filled with young, leading the cramped and miserable Yonah to request Hashem's aid. Though not a simple reading of the text,7 the Midrash highlights the question raised above: what function was the fish meant to serve?  Was it a manifestation of Hashem's mercy or justice? Was it meant purely to save or also to rebuke? See Yonah's Prayer.

Did the Sailors Convert?

Romano's sailors appear distraught after throwing Yonah into the sea, while in the Cervera Bible they are indifferent.  How did the entire incident affect the boatmen? Did it have a long lasting and life changing impact, or as might be implied by Asarfati, did both their fear and wonder soon dissipate? Chapter 1 offers a clue, stating that the sailors "feared Hashem exceedingly".  Commentators debate whether this implies that they became monotheists or only that they were momentarily impressed and thankful for their salvation. R"Y KaraYonah 2:9About R. Yosef Kara and RadakYonah 2:9About R. David Kimchi bring support for their opposing positions from the verse "מְשַׁמְּרִים הַבְלֵי שָׁוְא חַסְדָּם יַעֲזֹבוּ".  R"Y Kara assumes that the words refer to the sailors who had been idolatrous ("מְשַׁמְּרִים הַבְלֵי שָׁוְא"), but now converted ("חַסְדָּם "יַעֲזֹבוּ), while Radak suggests that it means that their newfound faith ("חַסְדָּם") was not long-lasting ("יַעֲזֹבוּ").

Where did Yonah Arrive?

In Brueghel's painting, Yonah is expelled onto a deserted shore, while in Romano's drawing, he lands in an inhabited area. Where did the fish leave Yonah?  Did it bring him all the way to Nineveh or to elsewhere?  Though many might assume that the fish released Yonah at his intended destination, Yonah 3:1-3 might imply otherwise, presenting Yonah as still needing to travel to the city. The question relates to a larger issue: to what extent did Hashem force Yonah into prophesying?  Was he frightened into doing Hashem's will and delivered straight to Nineveh to proceed as commanded, with little choice to act differently?  Or, did Hashem give him the option of refusing, necessitating him to actively travel to fulfill his mission, providing him with ample time to change his mind yet again?

Thrown into the Sea?

In the image from the Cervera Bible, Yonah heads directly into the  mouth of the fish, without first floundering in the sea. Is this a possible reading of the text? Which verses challenge this reading? Which support it? In his prayer of Chapter 2, how does Yonah describe the dangers  in which he found himself? Does he speak of the fish or sea?  Which verses are ambiguous? See Yonah's Prayer.