Given our son Jonah, I was certainly keyed up to notice a figure with a whale nibbling at his leg. But Michelangelo's Jonah is easy to spot because it has pride of place -- sitting right in the center, between the ceiling and the Last Judgement (painted decades later), directly opposite where the Pope and the college of cardinals would traditionally have entered the room. I found it curious, even though my art history colleagues at the Academy did not. "He prefigures Christ," they said. "His time in the belly of the whale is the Old Testament allusion to death and resurrection."
But that's not the view from the Torah.
I was pleased that Michelangelo included, behind the twisting head of Jonah, the branches of the gourd tree. Because it reminds us of the deeply problematic prophetic figure that is Jonah. In a way far more aggressive than Moses, he resists his role as prophet and rushes to the sea. Spit out by the whale, he finally goes to preach the end to the inhabitants of Nineveh. But God decides not to punish the Ninevites after all, which enrages Jonah. How stupid he was made to look by God! He flees to the country to sulk, only to find it dreadfully hot. Miraculously, a gourd tree grows to shade him. Bliss. And just as quickly, that tree is killed by a worm, exposing Jonah once again. He prays to God to end his life, lest he endure another day in the sun. The section of the Torah ends with God delivering an angry lesson about vanity and value: "You care so much about this gourd tree and the shade it gives you that you'd die because it has been cut down, but you'd happily kill off an entire city of people just to save your pride?"
I always loved this problematic prophet. Perhaps the gourd tree in the background (barely visible from the floor of the Sistine Chapel) was Michelangelo's ironic comment on the simplicity of seeing Jonah as a Christ-like figure. I am quite sure I am wrong, but I like to imagine it so.