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The Prophet Jonah is shown in half-length with his right-hand raised in blessing and his left-hand holding a scroll with an inscription from the Old Testament Book of Jonah: 'The word of the Lord came unto Jonah [son] of Amittai, saying, "Arise"' (1:1-2). Jonah's facial qualities also help to identify him as they are the classical features of this figure: balding head, grey circular beard and serious countenance. His garments are the typical vestments worn by a prophet in icons: a chiton (dark green) with a himation (sandy-hued) draped over. He is facing to his right as the panel originally formed part of the 'prophet tier' of a Russian iconostasis. In its original context Jonah would have been gazing toward the Virgin Orans iconography in the centre of the tier (see fig. a for an example of an iconostasis with the 'prophet tier').
Jonah [from the Jewish yonah meaning dove] is an important prophet in the Old Testament, in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. In terms of order, it is the fifth book in the Christian scriptures and the Jewish Tanakh. 2 Kings 14:25 tells us that Jonah was from a small town in Galilee called Gath Hepher and lived during the 8th century BCE (around the time of King Jeroboam II). The main event in the Book of Jonah relates how the prophet attempted to escape the calling of the Lord. As the rest of the passage that begins in the inscription in our icon (see above) relates:
Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise", go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (1:1-4)
Jonah pays the price of attempting to escape the Lord by being cast into the sea and swallowed by a whale: 'Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.' (1:17)
In early Christianity the myth of Jonah in the belly of a whale for three days and nights was interpreted as prefiguring Christ's death and resurrection. This interpretation was popular in patristic theology, but goes back to the Gospel of Matthew: 'For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth' (12:40).
The current version has an intense gaze that gives the impression that Jonah is a trance-like state of consciousness. Despite the classical simplicity, the style of our version points to the mid-17th century and was possibly created in the Northern locality of Kholmogory, a well-known icon-painting centre in the Arkangelsk Region. If we compare, for example, the distinctive facial features of our Jonah - especially the large, pensive eyes, and the swirls of the beard - we can see a clear similarity with an icon of Saint Peter from 1642 (fig. b).
There are also notable comparisons with another panel from the same iconostasis showing John Chrysostom (fig. c), as well as an icon of Saint Peter from a different 17th century workshop in Kholmogory (fig. d).