All of the episodes in this passage are variations on the theme of redemption. In the first vignette, the ‘son of the prophet’ is redeemed from debt slavery, into which he would probably have fallen as a result of losing the iron head from a borrowed axe (Leithart 2006: 199–200). In the second, the prophet Elisha, his servant, and the city are redeemed from destruction at Aram’s hands. Finally, through the prophet’s mediation, Aram’s army is rescued from a vengeful act of retaliation from the King of Israel.
Of the three works chosen for this exhibition, only the manuscript illumination by Jan Boudolf is explicitly based on the biblical text. The other two, while not directly connected to the passage, illumine and visually expound three other key themes: mediation, vision, and reversal.
The manuscript illumination pulls the viewer in through its decorated quatrefoil frame toward the deeper meaning of the text. What at first blush may appear merely illustrative and aesthetically pleasing, turns out to be a form of theological commentary. Through subtle visual cues, the illumination signals the presence of the supernatural and foreshadows the miraculous dénouement to this simple story. It does this through the trinity of angels that hovers over Elisha and the two ‘sons of the prophets’, and through the orientation of the prophet’s hands. As in some images of Christ at the Last Judgement, his left hand points upwards, towards the celestial realm of God and angels, the place from where deliverance is expected. His right hand points downwards, to the sphere of the mundane. It also anticipates the iron’s sinking into the water.
The prophet is portrayed as a teacher instructing his disciples, as mediator, and conduit of divine power. These are roles he plays in the subsequent scenes of the narrative. He prayerfully intercedes for his servant to receive spiritual vision on a threatening situation (2 Kings 6:17), on the one hand, and for God to take, and later restore, the natural vision of the Arameans, on the other (vv.18, 20). He acts as a mediator for the Syrians, instructing the King of Israel to spare their lives and treat them to a royal banquet rather than kill them, and through this, he acts as a broker of peace and channel of divine hospitality (v.22).
Viewed alongside the passage, the works in this exhibition enable a seeing of reality in its spiritual, even eschatological depth. By depicting angelic creatures, thought to be elusive and hidden from plain sight, the manuscript illumination concretizes the spiritual, and impresses upon the viewer the reality and potency, if also the hiddenness, of God and of heavenly beings. The illumination is also an invitation to the reader to see ordinary scenes and endeavours as spiritually charged sites where angels tread and redemptive reversals are imminent. There is an important resonance here with Katie Patterson’s art, which facilitates encounters with vast, if unseeable, cosmic forces and events. 100 Billion Suns is an invitation to acknowledge and acquaint ourselves with the hidden, but no less real and potent, energies at play in the universe.
The stories of the floating axe and the sparing of the Syrian army are both underpinned by a logic of reversal. In the first story, the laws of gravity are miraculously reversed. The sunken axe head is made to float. In the final scene of the passage, the laws of death and violence are reversed. A feast is spread before a humiliated enemy. Banksy’s Rage, Flower Thrower captures this logic of reversal with arresting poignancy. Instead of a grenade or a homemade petrol bomb, the protestor is about to hurl into enemy territory a vividly coloured bouquet.
Theologically construed, the mural hints at the eschatological terminus of violence. It is simultaneously a negation of what theologian John Milbank calls an ‘ontology of violence’ (2006: 4) and a powerful nod to peace as the world’s ‘ultimate ontological reality’ (2003: 42). But for the times ‘in-between’, before the promised Kingdom of Peace is fully established, Banksy’s ‘flower thrower’ is also, perhaps, a call to subversive enemy love and hospitality.
Barkham, Patrick. 2019. ‘“I've breathed in some crazy things from outer space”—Katie Paterson's
Cosmic Art, 28 January 2019’, www.theguardian.com, [accessed 21 July 2020]
Leithart, Peter. 2006. 1–2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press)
Milbank, John. 2003. Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge)
———.2006. Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)
Patterson, Katie. 2011. ‘100 Billion Suns’, www.katiepaterson.org, [accessed 21 July 2020]
6 Now the sons of the prophets said to Eliʹsha, “See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us. 2Let us go to the Jordan and each of us get there a log, and let us make a place for us to dwell there.” And he answered, “Go.” 3Then one of them said, “Be pleased to go with your servants.” And he answered, “I will go.” 4So he went with them. And when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. 5But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water; and he cried out, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed.” 6Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. 7And he said, “Take it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it.
8 Once when the king of Syria was warring against Israel, he took counsel with his servants, saying, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” 9But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Syrians are going down there.” 10And the king of Israel sent to the place of which the man of God told him. Thus he used to warn him, so that he saved himself there more than once or twice.
11 And the mind of the king of Syria was greatly troubled because of this thing; and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you not show me who of us is for the king of Israel?” 12And one of his servants said, “None, my lord, O king; but Eliʹsha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.” 13And he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and seize him.” It was told him, “Behold, he is in Dothan.” 14So he sent there horses and chariots and a great army; and they came by night, and surrounded the city.
15 When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was round about the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16He said, “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17Then Eliʹsha prayed, and said, “O Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Eliʹsha. 18And when the Syrians came down against him, Eliʹsha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, I pray thee, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Eliʹsha. 19And Eliʹsha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samarʹia.
20 As soon as they entered Samarʹia, Eliʹsha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes, and they saw; and lo, they were in the midst of Samarʹia. 21When the king of Israel saw them he said to Eliʹsha, “My father, shall I slay them? Shall I slay them?” 22He answered, “You shall not slay them. Would you slay those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” 23So he prepared for them a great feast; and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians came no more on raids into the land of Israel.