The despondent Elijah fortified by the bread and water that the angel brings to him in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:5–8) constitutes one of four Old Testament scenes that anticipate the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper in this large multi-panelled altarpiece for the parish church in Leuven.
Two professors of theology, Jan Varenecker and Aegidius Ballawel, were asked to provide the painter with precise instructions as to the choice of subjects: the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, the gathering of manna in the desert, the feast of Passover, and Elijah fed by divine providence in the wilderness. The four scenes are thus intended not simply to foretell the Last Supper but also to explain its significance.
In the Elijah panel, the head of the sleeping prophet rests upon his right hand while next to his head are the miraculous sources of sustenance which the angel is about to show him: an earthenware jar of water with bread on top of it (1 Kings 19:6). Dieric Bouts the Elder thus omits the most dramatic moment of the story: Elijah’s awakening and finding this miraculous gift of food. The artist has chosen, rather, to suggest the effects of the heavenly food—for we also see Elijah in the background, nourished both physically and spiritually, boldly setting out on his long and symbolic journey of forty days and forty nights. This will take him to Mount Horeb, the site of his mystical divine experience (1 Kings 19:8). Like the Eucharist, perhaps, this food and drink are a route to theophany.
Bound together by their eucharistic connotations, Bouts also unites the various scenes through the use of a vibrant red—particularly in the outer garments of many of the painting’s figures—and this has the effect of focussing particular attention on the mantle in which Elijah is wrapped, and which also billows confidently in the wind as he makes his journey to Horeb in the background. Shortly afterwards, he will cast this mantle upon his disciple Elisha (1 Kings 19:19) as a sign of passing on his spiritual authority.
McNamee, Maurice B. 1998. Vested Angels: Eucharistic Allusions in Early Netherlandish Paintings (Leuven: Peeters)
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.
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.”