The miraculously floating axe-head: followers of Elisha cut trees near the river Jordan from Guiard des Moulins, Grande Bible Historiale Complétée by Jan Boudolf

Jan Boudolf

The miraculously floating axe-head: followers of Elisha cut trees near the river Jordan from Guiard des Moulins, Grande Bible Historiale Complétée, 1372, Illuminated manuscript, Museum Meermanno, Huis van het boek, The Hague, MMW, 10 B 23, MMW, 10 B 23

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The Floating Axe

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As miracles go, the one narrated in 2 Kings 6:1–7 might seem rather banal. An anonymous ‘son of the prophets’ has an unfortunate work incident. While felling trees for a building project, the head of his axe comes loose and lands in the river Jordan. Personal distress ensues but the crisis ends quickly. Elisha, the ‘man of God’, recovers the missing axe head.

This fourteenth-century manuscript illumination by Jan Boudolf could be accused of rendering the episode even more mundane by choosing to show a moment before anything has gone awry. The men chop away while the prophet teaches them. Both axe heads are still attached.

But the artist has added an additional detail—not in the biblical text—to ensure that we recognize the extraordinariness of what is underway. Three red angels, haloed in gold, have made a dramatic appearance in the upper half of the illumination. This detail links the scene with the more epic events that 2 Kings 6 is soon to unfold, when a veil will be lifted on a whole army of them. 

The angels signal both the impending moment of crisis and its divine resolution. When we anticipate what is to come, the illumination is charged with dramatic tension. There are unseen beings and forces at work in the world. The universe is enchanted. A supernatural display of power will recover a lost axe head and thus restore the fortunes of an unnamed worker. A site of manual labour, no less than a battlefield of kings, can be the gathering place of angels.

This vignette can be seen as a humble testimony to the meticulous care of a God who feeds baby ravens (Job 38:41), quenches the thirst of wild donkeys (Psalm 104:11), perceives barely formed thoughts from far away (Psalm 139:2, 4), numbers the hairs of balding heads (Matthew 10:30), and recovers work tools for anonymous assistant prophets.


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