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Jonah Marbles

In 1965 the Cleveland Museum of Art acquired a group of eleven Late Roman marble busts and statuettes now known as the Jonah Marbles. Allegedly found buried together in a large pithos, or jar, the group consists of three nearly identical pairs of portrait busts of a Roman aristocratic couple, four small-scale statuettes depicting central events of the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah; and one statuette of a youthful sheep-bearer, a common pastoral theme in Late Roman art that was interpreted by Christians as a representation of Christ as the Good Shepherd.While the exact location and circumstances of the statues’ discovery as well as their place of production remains elusive, technical analysis has helped to identify the Roman imperial quarries at Dokimeion in ancient Phrygia (near the modern Turkish city of Afyon) as the source for the highly crystalline white marble from which they were all carved. Likewise unknown is the original context in which these were displayed and the intended function of the sculptures.The story of Jonah—one of hope, salvation, and the redemptive power of prayer and repentance—was often depicted in Christian funereal contexts. It is also possible that the sculptures decorated the house or garden of an affluent Christian Roman family; the Old and New Testament figures replaced those of the gods and heroes of classical mythology that adorned such spaces in the pre-Christian period. As the statuettes show, the Jonah Marbles are clearly indebted both to the cultural traditions of the Roman world and to the religious imagery of the new Christian faith.

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