The Whale

Panels from the pulpit of the cathedral of Sessa Aurunca: Jonah Preaching, Peacocks, and Jonah and the Whale, ca. 1224-59

Panels from the pulpit of the cathedral of Sessa Aurunca, ca. 1224-59. Clockwise from top left: Jonah Preaching, Peacocks, and Jonah and the Whale, ca. 1224-59

Whales are immense fish, as big as mountains. Rising to the surface of the ocean, they fool sailors, who think them to be islands. Looking to make landfall there, sailors disembark upon the whales, and lose their lives by drowning when the beasts dive down again.

Their mouths agape, whales swim through the seas, emitting a sweet odor that draws small fishes near. Snapping their mouths shut once a great number have gathered, they swallow them all at once into bellies as vast as caverns.

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The sculpted panel Jonah and the Whale, like the panel with Peacocks, was once part of the pulpit’s original staircase. Here the whale appears as a large, though not immense, scaly fish with a snout and a mouthful of teeth. Note how Jonah’s right foot strikes the frame in such a way to suggest that it is a ground line, and that other than the whale itself, there is no visual reference to the sea.

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