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Clive Hicks-Jenkins

The Prophet Fed by a Raven, 2007, Oil on canvas, Collection of the artist, © Clive H. Jenkins; Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Unknown Byzantine artist, Thessalonica

Prophet Elijah in the Wilderness, Late 14th–15th century, Tempera on panel, 33.5 x 28 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, I-187, akg-images / Album

Dieric Bouts the Elder

The Last Supper Altarpiece, 1464–68, Oil on panel, 150 x 180 cm, M Treasury of St. Peter's, M-Museum Leuven, inv. S/58/B, Photo: Erich Lessing/ Art Resource, NY

An Enduring and Timeless Prophet

Comparative Commentary by

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.

 

References

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