This mosaic tells the story of the Prophet Jonah, who – like Christ – was from Galilee. Jonah lived during the reign of King Jeroboam II of Israel, in the 8th century BC (2 Kings 14:25).
His ministry, which is described in the book named after him, reflects several themes – reluctance to serve God, forgiveness, God’s power over nature and his concern for nations other than Israel. The book may be a work of historical fiction, dramatising the life of the real prophet.
The story goes like this. One day, God told Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and foretell its doom, for its people had become great sinners. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, a great nation in the east. However, Jonah wasn’t keen. Instead, he made his way to the coast and went aboard a ship heading west, thinking he would be able to hide from God and avoid the mission.
After the ship had set sail, God sent a violent storm onto the sea that threatened to sink the vessel. The crew cast lots to see who was to blame for this catastrophe – and the lot fell to Jonah. He confessed that he was on the run from God and advised them to throw him into the sea. So, the sailors then cast him overboard and immediately, the sea became calm.
Then, at God’s command a great fish — traditionally thought to be a whale — swallowed Jonah whole. For three days and three nights, the prophet was in the whale’s belly. He prayed to the Lord for help, in words which we find in Jonah 2:1-10. God heard him and on the third day, the fish vomited him out onto dry land.
But God wasn’t finished with the prophet yet. He said to Jonah a second time: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message that I give you.” This time, Jonah obeyed. He travelled to the city and went through it proclaiming, “After forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown.”
When the people heard these words, they repented, wearing sackcloth and fasting as a sign of their sorrow. Even the king of Nineveh joined in, commanding everyone to turn from sin and to do penance, in hopes of sparing his city. When God saw the sincerity of their repentance, he accepted their prayers and changed his mind about destroying Nineveh.
Jonah was very angry about this and went into a sulk. He built himself a shelter outside Nineveh, so that he could watch what would become of the city. God arranged for a plant to grow next to the shelter, to give him shade from the sun and to cheer him up. However, the next day the plant died, leaving Jonah to be scorched by the hot sun and a blistering wind.
Discouraged and dejected, Jonah then said he wanted to die. But God responded: “You are concerned about the plant, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow. Why should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons?”
Christ later described Jonah’s miraculous survival from the sea as a symbol of his resurrection (Matthew 12:38-41). Just as Jonah spent three days in the whale’s belly before coming out alive, Christ lay for three days in the tomb before rising to new life. We can also see parallels with Christ’s life in Jonah’s public preaching and his willingness to die to save others.
This maritime-themed mosaic of Jonah emerging alive from the whale was designed by the artist Tessa Hunkin. It was produced in 2017 by volunteers from the Hackney Mosaic project for an art exhibition on the Resurrection. It’s now featured within a Catholic church local to Hackney – Our Lady and St Joseph, in Kingsland. Here we see a rejoicing Jonah being spurted forth by the whale while the ship’s crew look on.
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Where to find this work of art
Our Lady and St Joseph, Kingsland
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