Sacred Mysteries: Speaking from within the mouth of the whale

Christopher Howse
·3-min read
Baroque pulpit at Duszniki in Lower Silesia - Jacek Halicki
Baroque pulpit at Duszniki in Lower Silesia - Jacek Halicki

A surprise awaits in the church of St Peter and St Paul in the little town of Duszniki near Wroclaw in Poland. A huge sea monster leaps from the wall, scaly with great fins and a knotted tail, its big mouth agape, studded with square molars and sharp foreteeth like a hippo’s. Its saucer eyes stare upward and its red palate is visible in the cave of its open jaw.

The preacher will stand in that mouth, as this is a pulpit, in a most exuberant baroque style. It doesn’t stop at the fish, for round its mouth sit, miraculously supported in air, the four Evangelists in robes of gold.

Human skulls lie on top of its snout, next to an extraordinary figure, skeleton down one side of the body and flesh down the other, reaching upward. Figures and clouds swirl higher towards a sunburst at the summit where the risen Christ stands triumphant.

What is going on here? The delirious pulpit was made in the 1720s in a wildly imaginative convention. The church looks staid enough on the outside, with a pleasing splay-footed shingled spire, but, inside, the high altar near the pulpit is also in explosive baroque.

The town is in Lower Silesia, which has suffered a complicated territorial history as part of Poland, Bohemia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia and Germany. After the Second World War, Russia gobbled up eastern Poland, and Germans were expelled from Lower Silesia, which became part of Poland again.

Duszniki is near the border of the Czech Republic. Since the 18th century it has been a spa resort. Chopin came here, aged 16, for the waters.

The pulpit was designed by Michael Kössler, born in Bavaria and responsible for flamboyant altarpieces in what is now Poland.

Yet, although baroque art took its name from the grotesque (perhaps from the word for an uneven pearl), this pulpit would have been recognisable to Christians of the third century. There is, in the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, a pair of white marble sculptures 14in high of Jonah and the sea monster. (In the Hebrew original of the book of Jonah it is called a “big fish”.) One shows just Jonah’s legs disappearing into its maw. The other shows him diving out again on the third day. The creature has gills and paws and a curly tail like the pulpit at Duszniki.

To the early Christians, as to the people of Duszniki, the tale of Jonah prophesied the Resurrection of Jesus. Jonah was also a suitable patron for a preacher, as he was sent by God to preach to Nineveh. But then the architect of the pulpit took in the main theme of the Gospel, represented by the Evangelists – mankind’s participation in the Resurrection.

The skeleton clothed in flesh stands for the resurrection to eternal life, with reference to the valley of dry bones in the book of Ezekiel, where the prophet saw how “the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them.”

Connecting Jonah with the Resurrection of Jesus was not arbitrary, for Jesus is quoted in the Gospel according to St Matthew saying: “As Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.”

I suppose the people of Duszniki grew used to their parson speaking from the whale’s mouth, but were no doubt moved occasionally to contemplate the whole achievement.