Elijah’s mantle, with which he covers his face in the cave (1 Kings 19:13), which he casts over Elisha (1 Kings 19:19), and which he rolls up in order to strike the river Jordan, causing its waters to part (2 Kings 2:8), becomes the symbol of the prophetic authority that the older man passes on to his successor.
As Elisha stands awe-struck at the dramatic departure of Elijah in his chariot of fire, Elijah’s mantle falls—making it the prophet’s only material relic—and Elisha eagerly picks it up. Through its miraculous powers, Elisha is able to perform the same miracle as Elijah, dividing the waters of the Jordan in two (2 Kings 2:13–14).
The symbolic importance of the mantle is exquisitely rendered in the historiated initial P that opens 2 Kings in the Winchester Bible. The artist, known as the Master of the Leaping Figures, creates three dramatic scenes: the cup of the letter P depicts the messengers of the ill King Ahaziah reporting Elijah’s prophecy to him that he shall surely die (2 Kings 1:5–6), while the stem conveys the dramatic swirling of the prophet’s chariot of fire as it moves heavenward (2 Kings 2:11), and Elisha’s excitement as he rushes to seize the garment that falls from his master (2 Kings 2:13–14).
The artist paints the mantle twice, using two of the most precious materials available to him: in the centre, it is depicted in gold with its sleeve raised towards the departing Elijah, and at the bottom in lapis blue as Elisha catches it in his right hand.
The illuminations of the Winchester Bible are celebrated for their ‘damp-fold drapery’, in which material is shown clinging to the human figures like wet cloth, thereby articulating the shapes of their bodies more fully. Here, the illuminator uses his skill to show the golden mantle preserving Elijah’s contours as it falls. It is as though Elijah’s miraculous garment is about to envelop Elisha while still bearing the master’s imprint—clothing Elisha with the physical symbol of his spiritual inheritance and underscoring the link between the two men.
Donovan, Claire. 1993. The Winchester Bible (London: The British Library/Winchester Cathedral), pp. 40–41
12And Eliʹsha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
And he took up the mantle of Eliʹjah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14Then he took the mantle of Eliʹjah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Eliʹjah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other; and Eliʹsha went over.
15 Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him over against them, they said, “The spirit of Eliʹjah rests on Eliʹsha.” And they came to meet him, and bowed to the ground before him. 16And they said to him, “Behold now, there are with your servants fifty strong men; pray, let them go, and seek your master; it may be that the Spirit of the Lord has caught him up and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley.” And he said, “You shall not send.” 17But when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, “Send.” They sent therefore fifty men; and for three days they sought him but did not find him. 18And they came back to him, while he tarried at Jericho, and he said to them, “Did I not say to you, Do not go?”
19 Now the men of the city said to Eliʹsha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” 20He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. 21Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” 22So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word which Eliʹsha spoke.
23 He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Samarʹia.