Jonah Under His Gourd Plant

Jonah and the Gourd, Martin Van Heemskerck

Jonah and the Gourd, Martin Van Heemskerck, 1561, Royal Collection Trust, England


Jonah was greatly displeased
and became angry that God did not carry out the evil
he threatened against Nineveh.
He prayed, “I beseech you, LORD,
is not this what I said while I was still in my own country?
This is why I fled at first to Tarshish.
I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God,
slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish.
And now, LORD, please take my life from me;
for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the LORD asked, “Have you reason to be angry?”

Jonah then left the city for a place to the east of it,
where he built himself a hut and waited under it in the shade,
to see what would happen to the city.
And when the LORD God provided a gourd plant
that grew up over Jonah’s head,
giving shade that relieved him of any discomfort,
Jonah was very happy over the plant.
But the next morning at dawn
God sent a worm that attacked the plant,
so that it withered.
And when the sun arose, God sent a burning east wind;
and the sun beat upon Jonah’s head till he became faint.
Then Jonah asked for death, saying,
“I would be better off dead than alive.”

But God said to Jonah,
“Have you reason to be angry over the plant?”
“I have reason to be angry,” Jonah answered, “angry enough to die.”
Then the LORD said,
“You are concerned over the plant which cost you no labor
and which you did not raise;
it came up in one night and in one night it perished.
And should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city,
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons
who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left,
not to mention the many cattle?”

Jonah 4:1-11

From the Royal collection website:

Heemskerck paints the moment ‘when the morning rose the next day’: the entire scene is shrouded in an early morning mist that will clear to a day of intense heat. This veils the city so that its size and design can be only partially apprehended. This imprecision leaves the imagination to conceive a metropolis, described in the Bible as three days’ walk in diameter. The whole scene is in fact set in sixteenth-century Rome: the structure in the foreground is a Roman aqueduct of a type that could be seen surrounding the city on all sides (sections are visible to this day). The apparent oddity of the perspective is caused by the fact that the aqueduct divides into two above where Jonah sits, one branch heading off towards the city. The background loosely resembles the view down the Tiber near the Vatican, with the addition of a structure much like the Milvian bridge (from the outskirts of Rome) and a suggestion of the Castel S. Angelo on the left. A group of pen and ink drawings by Heemskerck survives, recording the monuments of ancient Rome; these were evidently executed on the spot in circumstances recorded in the background of his Self Portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Much of the architecture in the distance of this painting is fanciful and extravagant in order to evoke Nineveh, an ancient city more remote than Rome in time and location. However, using Rome as a starting point is an effective device: Heemskerck’s viewers will have known about (and perhaps experienced) sight-seers’ heat-stroke; it must have been easy for them to conceive of the catastrophe threatening Nineveh against the background of a city which, in the sixteenth century, was mostly rubble. Montaigne described Rome in 1581 as ‘no more than a sepulchre…dead, overthrown and mutilated’ and that sepulchre itself ‘for the most part buried’. Even the Roman aqueduct – dry, hot stone where once water flowed – is a powerful image of thirst and ruin. 


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