Abstract: Jonah reclines on the beach, stark naked, eyes closed in slumber, while the sea monster that just vomited him forth hulks before the sleeping prophet, his serpentine neck and ferociously toothed maw a reminder of what Jonah has just escaped. Carved on numerous Roman coffins between roughly 270 and 315 AD, it was the earliest, and most popular, motif for Christian sarcophagi before Constantine.
That the prophet’s languid pose was modeled on that of Endymion, the handsome shepherd who caught the eye of Selene in Greek myth, is widely acknowledged. But why do these early Christian works so often show the sea monster extending a front limb to glance Jonah’s own leg, as if lasciviously caressing the prophet’s thigh, while Jonah throws his head back in ecstasy? Are we really supposed to think that the monster is friskily set on love with the open and waiting prophet? How are we to make sense of this in a Christian context, in a funerary context, in any context?
Unpacking this unexpected motif will provide insight into a host of issues: not only into the commemorative habits of early Christians, their use of pagan models, and their particular interest in Jonah (why was he so popular for the funerary setting?), but also into the carving habits of Rome’s sarcophagus workshops, the size of Rome’s Christian clientele, and the pregnant question of who, exactly, whether pagan or Christian, sculpted these works.