ULPITS come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, colors and styles. From the early examples at San Clemente in Rome and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to more recent examples in 21st-century churches, ambos have always been marked by significant variety. There are wooden pulpits and marble pulpits, Baroque pulpits and art deco pulpits, flimsy pulpits and bully pulpits. Some are set up high above the congregation, some are out in the midst of the nave, and some sit meekly beside the altar.
There are also whale pulpits.
Recently, a friend sent me a couple photos of this genre of ambo, previously unknown to me. The images were quite striking, and they led me to do a little Internet investigation. This search revealed that there are actually quite a few such appointments in Catholic churches, particularly in 18th-century churches in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Check out this photo gallery, which highlights some examples of whale pulpits.
Most of these images are drawn from the website of a Polish art historian (here). She also gives what strikes me as a sound theological reading of these unusual ambos.
In the first place, these ambos allude to the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament. While fleeing to Tarshish in order to avoid his prophetic call to announce the word of the Lord in Nineveh, Jonah ends up being thrown overboard and swallowed by a great fish. (Scripture scholars are always quick to point out that the text, strictly speaking, does not say “whale.”) After three days in the belly of the fish, Jonah is spit up onto the dry land and goes forth to announce God’s message—with astonishing success—to the Ninevites. For a preacher to stand at the mouth of the whale, therefore, is to assume a prophetic posture.
Second, it is important to remember the Christological interpretation of the story of Jonah, wherein the three days he spent in the belly of the fish represent the Lord’s three days in the tomb. Speaking from the mouth of the fish, therefore, the preacher stands also as an image of the Risen Christ.
Beyond their theological significance, these whale pulpits also have the potential to serve practical ends. Consider the problem of a preacher who goes on too long. These ambos could be outfitted with a congregant-operated mechanism that would cause the mouth to snap shut!
Not all of these whale pulpits are of equal artistic merit. Some of them, frankly, are a bit goofy. But the theological idea underlying these ambos is nevertheless very sound and quite interesting. They testify, moreover, to the beautiful diversity and creativity that are possible in Catholic architecture.