Elijah, taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot at the end of his life (2 Kings 2:11), did not experience death and so, in Jewish and Christian tradition, he is eternally alive and present—but his longevity is equally assured by his ubiquitous presence in the rich repertoire of Eastern and Western art.
In Christian iconography, episodes described in 1 Kings 17:1–7 and 1 Kings 19:4–14 frequently merge into one, and are adapted to suit the time and place in which they are painted, as is illustrated by the three paintings selected for this exhibition. The icon and Dieric Bouts the Elder’s painting, perhaps painted in the same century, nevertheless reflect contrasting iconographical approaches to the subject prevalent in the Eastern Orthodox and the Western churches respectively, while the approach of the contemporary artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins shows how Elijah continues to remain a source of inspiration today, to believer and non-believer alike.
All three paintings present a sensitive character study of Elijah at the most decisive period in his prophetic mission when ‘he asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors”’ (1 Kings 19:4 NRSV). The barrenness of the wilderness to which he flees mirrors the sense of rejection he feels within. In each of the three paintings, Elijah is utterly alone, isolated from any form of human companionship; the viewer must engage with a figure clearly dejected, as is implied by the prophet’s posture and body language. In the icon, he rests his chin wearily on his right hand; in Bouts’s painting, he huddles on the ground exhausted, wrapped in his mantle as if for protection. Hicks-Jenkins depicts a figure with slouched shoulders, head slightly bent, perplexed and despairing.
But into this scene of despair, the artists subtly inject a note of hope. In the icon painting, a raven arrives with food, in the shape of eucharistic bread (1 Kings 17:1–7). Bouts depicts an angel touching Elijah reassuringly (1 Kings 19:7) while in Hicks-Jenkins’s version, an exhilarating and dazzling red raven interrupts the sombreness of Elijah’s mood (1 Kings 17:6).
The note of optimism is further enhanced by the artists’ juxtaposition of biblical passages: the icon maker incorporates the episode of Elijah fed by the raven into the scene of his abandonment in the wilderness, and hints at a mystical and reassuring encounter with the divine in the cave in which he seeks refuge. Bouts presents Elijah as a forlorn figure visited by an angel in the foreground of his panel, but, in the background, he paints the prophet confidently striding towards Horeb, as he walks forty days and nights nourished by the food given to him by the angel.
The background and context in which the figure of Elijah appears are significant. For the icon maker, it is the cave, that most sacred space in Orthodox iconography, reserved only for the most important events in Christ’s life, such as his birth at Bethlehem. The context for Bouts is the altarpiece below which the Eucharist is celebrated, thus highlighting the typological significance of Elijah’s bread from heaven in relation to the Last Supper. For Hicks-Jenkins, pre-eminently an artist of place, Elijah appears against a familiar Welsh hillside, green with fertility and hope.
In the larger story of Elijah’s life, there were indeed other events that had perhaps more dramatic appeal, such as the contest with the Baals (1 Kings 19:20–40) or his ascent to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:9–12) and these, too, clearly evoked imaginative and colourful artistic responses. But the three images selected for this exhibition attempt to visualize those biblical passages that describe the prophet’s personal and intimate experiences of the divine, sometimes in coded and ambiguous language—experiences central to the Elijah narrative but that must have proved challenging to the artist. In all three cases—the ravens feeding the prophet in the Wadi Cherith (1 Kings 17:1–5), the angel bringing bread and water in the desert (1 Kings 19:4–9), and the prophet’s intense awareness of the divine presence as he stands at the mouth of the cave (1 Kings 19:11–18)—the biblical author attempts to convey to the reader how the invisible world of the divine impacts on the visible and tangible world of Elijah. In their paintings, the three artists have approached the story from different but complementary perspectives; they reflect not only theological traditions current in their time, but also the potential of these stories to inspire new and personal interpretations today.
McMahon, P. 1997. ‘Pater et Dux: Elijah in Medieval Mythology’, in Master of the Sacred Page: Essays and Articles in Honor of Roland E. Murphy on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday, ed. by Keith J. Egan and Craig E. Morrison (Washington DC: Carmelite Institute), pp. 283–99
Nocquet, Dany et al. 2018. ‘Elijah’, in Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (Berlin: De Gruyter), pp. 686–701
17 Now Eliʹjah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” 2And the word of the Lord came to him, 3“Depart from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, that is east of the Jordan. 4You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan. 6And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the brook. 7And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
19 4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.” 5And he lay down and slept under a broom tree; and behold, an angel touched him, and said to him, “Arise and eat.” 6And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank, and lay down again. 7And the angel of the Lord came again a second time, and touched him, and said, “Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.” 8And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
9 And there he came to a cave, and lodged there; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Eliʹjah?” 10He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” 11And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13And when Eliʹjah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Eliʹjah?” 14He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”