Marble sarcophagus carved with scenes from the story of Jonah and the whale


British Museum

British Museum
London, United Kingdom

This sarcophagus was found partially buried in the garden of a large country house between Ilminster and Bath. The presence of a water channel and drain holes indicate that at some point it was re-used as a fountain. It was probably purchased in the eighteenth or nineteenth century by an Englishman on the Grand Tour.Jonah, reclining beneath a gourd tree, appears as the largest figure on the front side of the sarcophagus. The individuality of his features suggests that they were intended as a portrait, perhaps of the person buried in the sarcophagus. On the left, three sailors hoist the sails of a boat in advance of a storm. A ketos (mythical sea-creature), representing the whale, swims towards them through a rough sea. On the bottom-right the ketos spews Jonah from his mouth onto dry land. A lamb in the upper left-hand corner provides a pastoral, and perhaps also Christian, element. Fluted pilasters separate the scene on the front from the ends which are carved with another ketos and a peacock, both beneath gourd trees.The sarcophagus, probably commissioned by a Christian client, was carved in the last decades of the third century AD. The marble originated from a quarry in the east, either in Greece or Asia Minor, but the chest itself was probably made in Italy.


  • Title: Marble sarcophagus carved with scenes from the story of Jonah and the whale
  • Date Created: 250/299
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 60.00cm; Length: 192.00cm; Width: 77.00cm; Height: 50.00cm (Internal); Length: 171.50cm (Internal); Width: 60.00cm (Internal); Weight: 750.00kg (estimated)
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: carved; relief
  • Subject: monster; old testament; bird; fruit; tree/bush; architecture; boat/ship; animal
  • Registration number: 1957,1011.1
  • Place: Found/Acquired Ilminster. Found/Acquired Bath
  • Period/culture: Late Roman
  • Material: marble
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Purchased from Hewett, K John. With contribution from Art Fund

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