Jonah of Gath: Prophet or God?

A curious piece I read in today’s Torygraph describes how a koi will decide who wins a luxury home in an online Sudoku contest. It put me in mind immediately of Jonah, the cleverly-named giant carp in Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic novel “La Disparition”, written entirely without the use of the letter “e”. In the book, a boy sits on the side of a pond in the grounds of a country house and, when he wants to play with the fish, he softly calls, “Jonah, Jonah…” and the fish swims over to him. And this, in my own OuLiPo fashion, brings me to a depiction of the Prophet Jonah which I have never entirely understood: the “Jonah” located in the Chigi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo.

For those who thought I was, perhaps, a little harsh in my criticism of the statue of the Virgin Mary in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in yesterday’s post, I can only reply that I do tend to take on all comers when it comes to artistic matters – be they an Old Master or a contemporary artist. We live in a culture in which knowledge of the the great history of Western art and architecture, and indeed of painting prior to Impressionism (at best), is in an exceedingly sorry state even among educated younger people. In my very meager way I hope that by raising some of these observations, even if they are only my opinions, I may encourage some who are not familiar with the great movements and output of creative genius to recognize the importance of these contributions for the improvement of that culture.

The statue of Jonah which I mention is a good example of how we can understand not only our spiritual and cultural origins, but also examine human nature and philosophy within the context of art history. The great Renaissance master Raphael Santi was a painter, architect, and designer, but we have no real evidence that he was a sculptor. Because of Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists”, we know that the statue of Jonah which stands in the Chigi Chapel was at least partially designed or directed by Raphael, although executed by the Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Lotti, more commonly known as “Lorenzetto”.

The extremely wealthy Roman banker Agostino Chigi wanted a suitable chapel for himself and his family in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome, and after some lobbying from Raphael, was persuaded to allow Lorenzetto to decorate it, from plans either drawn up by Raphael himself or, more likely, a promise that Lorenzetto would have Raphael’s hand to guide the progress of the project. In some respects one could almost consider this a once-in-a-lifetime chance for Lorenzetto, who stood to make his name and fortune by pleasing both Chigi and Raphael himself, if the end result was successful.

Some scholars continue to maintain that the higher degree of skill and polish in the “Jonah” indicate the hand of Raphael in its execution, particularly when compared to the somewhat more poorly-executed companion image of the Prophet Elijah on the other side of the chapel, also by Lorenzetto. In my armchair art historian opinion, however, this can be more easily explained by practicalities. Raphael died in 1520, as did Agostino Chigi, and the loss of both master and patron would have impacted the end result. It would be reasonable to assume that the “Jonah” was completed or mostly completed by the time both men had died, meaning that any adjustments or finish to the composition had been made under the careful eye of Raphael and Chigi, while the “Elijah” was not yet at the same point in its execution.

Additionally, we know from Vasari that after the death of Chigi his family left Lorenzetto in financial straits: “the heirs of Agostino, with scant respect, allowed these figures to remain in Lorenzetto’s workshop, where they stood for many years. In our own day, indeed, they have been set into place on that tomb in the aforesaid Church of Santa Maria del Popolo; but Lorenzo, robbed for those reasons of all hope, found for the present that he had thrown away his time and labor.” With no promise that he would ever be paid, and with no master’s hand to guide him, it is understandable that Lorenzetto would have to abandon his work on the project, leaving behind the highly polished “Jonah” and the rather unfinished and clunky-looking “Elijah”.

For Christians, of course, the story of Jonah spending three days in the belly of the whale is symbolic of Christ’s Resurrection. Unfortunately, the decision by Raphael to depict Jonah as a sort of young Apollo emerging from his bathtub was a rather odd one, since we know that Jonah was something of a judgmental curmudgeon from the country bumpkin area around Nazareth. Of course one would have thought that the terror of nearly dying in a shipwreck and then of nearly being digested inside a giant fish would have been enough to change Jonah permanently, but as we learn in the Bible he was a stubborn old sod and remained so even when he arrived at Nineveh. We see none of that personality in this image; rather Jonah is shown as triumphant being – a god himself, rather than God’s prophet.

For most of his career Raphael was extremely orthodox in his depictions of religious figures, and so the “Jonah” which he directed Lorenzetto to produce is clearly influenced by the humanistic philosophy of the day. This is not surprising in the context of another project Raphael was working on for Chigi at about the same time, i.e. the highly humanistic, indeed paganistic, decoration of the Villa Farnesina, the Chigi country villa outside of Rome. As Raphael became more famous and his life became more focused on work and indulging his passions, his religious work, in my opinion, tended to suffer from a regrettably increasing secularization and loss of real spiritual content toward the end of his career, albeit with a few exceptions.

While I have no proof for this supposition, I do wonder whether Raphael’s inability to be a successful sculptor, combined with his admiration for Michelangelo – an artist whose depictions of religious figures was rarely orthodox – led him to look to Lorenzetto as a sort of extension of himself. If Lorenzetto could successfully interpret Raphael’s sculptural designs into marble, Raphael could thereby increase his own commissions and prestige. In the end, Raphael’s untimely death made this ambition impossible.

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