Jonah was a prophet, called by God to deliver a message of judgment to the city of Nineveh. Knowing the people of Nineveh were wicked, Jonah did not want them spared. He tried to evade his duty, boarding a ship to escape. But God sent a great storm, and the sailors on the ship threw Jonah overboard to save themselves. Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish. After three days and nights in the belly of the fish, Jonah prayed to God. The fish released him. and he went to Nineveh to deliver God’s message. The people of Nineveh repented of their sins, and the city was spared.
From Jonah to Gilgamesh, Jason and the Argonauts, and the Pre-Columbian story of the Skaná in the Haida tradition, there is an idea, shared across time and space, of a rite of passage in being consumed by a monster from the sea. The meaning of the story varies by culture, but each story connects us to the past and to all people.
Swanson’s first depiction of the story was Jonas (Crayon Sgraffito painting, 1974). He later returned to it with Jonah (Acrylic painting, 1999). The story is also shown in small details in Procession, Loaves and Fishes, and A Visit.