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Marble sarcophagus carved with scenes from the story of Jonah and the whale


Length: 192.000 cm

Purchased with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund

P&E MLA 1957,10-11,1

    Marble sarcophagus carved with scenes from the story of Jonah and the whale

    Late Roman, about AD 260-300
    Probably from Italy

    This sarcophagus was found partially buried in the garden of a large country house between Ilminster and Bath. The presence of a water channel and drain holes indicate that at some point it was re-used as a fountain. It was probably purchased in the eighteenth or nineteenth century by an Englishman on the Grand Tour.

    Jonah, reclining beneath a gourd tree, appears as the largest figure on the front side of the sarcophagus. The individuality of his features suggests that they were intended as a portrait, perhaps of the person buried in the sarcophagus. On the left, three sailors hoist the sails of a boat in advance of a storm. A ketos (mythical sea-creature), representing the whale, swims towards them through a rough sea. On the bottom-right the ketos spews Jonah from his mouth onto dry land. A lamb in the upper left-hand corner provides a pastoral, and perhaps also Christian, element. Fluted pilasters separate the scene on the front from the ends which are carved with another ketos and a peacock, both beneath gourd trees.

    The sarcophagus, probably commissioned by a Christian client, was carved in the last decades of the third century AD. The marble originated from a quarry in the east, either in Greece or Asia Minor, but the chest itself was probably made in Italy.

    S. Walker, A catalogue of the Roman sarco (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)


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