Monday, October 5, 2015
The invisible sea serpent
In the Sistine Chapel, the prophet Jonah is even bigger than Christ! On the other hand, the "big fish" that supposedly swallowed him is depicted too small to be able to do so. But a hypothesis surfaces: maybe the "fish" on the right is only the head of a sea serpent, whose long body is hidden-and-marked by the lines of the draperies -- the castor-oil plant in the background working as the tail end, in case. As a consequence, Jonah is at the same time inside and outside the beast, a subtle symbol of the dead and risen Christ (Matthew 12: 40). Such a visual joke would not be a novelty in Michelangelo, if we recall e.g. the arms in the Tondo Doni, that may belong to Joseph as well as to Mary.
So Jonah as an icon of salvation is the opposite of the damned man who, in Michelangelo's Last Judgment, is encircled and bitten by a snake. The paradoxical role of the Serpent as both the enemy and the symbol of Christ (John 3: 14) was well known to the artist, who painted the episode of the Brass Serpent (Numbers 21: 8-9) in this same Chapel.