Beginning of Second Kings with historiated initial showing the messengers of Elijah and Ahaziah, from the Winchester Bible by Unknown English artist known as the Master of the Leaping Figures

Unknown English artist known as the Master of the Leaping Figures

Beginning of Second Kings with historiated initial showing the messengers of Elijah and Ahaziah, from the Winchester Bible, c.1160–75, Manuscript illumination, 583 x 396 mm, Winchester Cathedral Library, fol. 120v, Bridgeman Images

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Elisha Receives the Mantle of Elijah

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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.

 

References

Donovan, Claire. 1993. The Winchester Bible (London: The British Library/Winchester Cathedral), pp. 40–41


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