The Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah by Unknown artist

Unknown artist, Russia

The Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah, 1650, Egg tempera on panel, 74.3 x 59.06 cm, Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, USA, R2010.6, Photo: Courtesy Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, MA

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Elijah the Thunderer

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

This seventeenth-century Russian icon shows, in the same pictorial field, four vignettes from the story of Elijah following his flight into the wilderness to escape Queen Jezebel.

Starting from the bottom left, these are:

—an angel laying a cruse of water at Elijah’s head while he sleeps (1 Kings 19:5–6)
—Elijah being fed by ravens as he hides in a cave on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:9–14)
—Elijah dividing the Jordan River with his mantle so that he and Elisha can pass over (2 Kings 2:8)
—Elijah being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot (with an angel at the reins), leaving his mantle to Elisha (2 Kings 2:11–13)

Each episode consists of some supernatural act, emphasizing God’s involvement in the life of his prophet.

The Church Slavonic inscription at the top names the icon: СВЯТЫЙ ИЛИЯ ПРОРОКЪ, ‘Holy Elijah [the] Prophet’. In Slavic countries Elijah— whose feast day is 20 July (a time of year associated with summer storms)—is sometimes referred to as Ilija Gromovnik, ‘Elijah the Thunderer’, as according to local folk beliefs, thunder is caused by the rumbling wheels of Elijah’s skyfaring chariot. In this sense and others, Elijah came to displace the pre-Christian Slavic god Perun, who was associated with thunder, lightning, storms, and fire.

Indeed, the red blaze at the top of this icon is its most striking feature, and it matches the tenor of Elijah’s ministry. He was a fiery prophet, much like John the Baptist who came after him generations later, and to whom he was often compared (Matthew 11:13–14; 17:11–13; Luke 1:17; cf. Sirach 48:1). Yet despite his severity, Elisha is bold enough to ask him for a double portion of his spirit. Elijah tells him that if he sees him being taken away, it will be so, so Elisha raises his hands in an orans position of prayer, expectant (alternatively, this could be read as an expression of astonished exclamation; cf. 2 Kings 2:12)—and sure enough, he witnesses the ascent of his master, who passes him the mantle, with which he will go on to perform twice as many miracles.

 

References

Cormack, Robin. 2007. Icons (London: British Museum), p. 136

Gilchrist, Cherry. 2009. Russian Magic: Living Folk Traditions of an Enchanted Landscape (Wheaton: Quest Books), pp. 80–84

Kondakov, Nikodim Pavlovich. 2009. Icons (Temporis) (New York: Parkstone Press), p. 122

Tradigo, Alfredo, Stephen Sartarelli (trans.). 2006. Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum), pp. 81–85

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