The contemporary Welsh artist, Clive Hicks-Jenkins, was much inspired by the episode of Elijah fed by the ravens (1 Kings 17:1–7) and painted two different versions of it. His first encounter with the scene was when he saw it on a Renaissance altarpiece: the ‘Oxford Thebaid’—nine pieces of a fragmented mid-fifteenth-century Tuscan altarpiece held at Christ Church Picture Gallery in Oxford.
He has described how ‘as an unbeliever’, he was ‘smitten with the beauty of the story’. In particular, he was completely taken by the notion of the raven as an emissary of God delivering sustenance to the prophet. As a response to the Renaissance panel, he depicted the scene in contemporary terms.
In this version, Hicks-Jenkins portrays the prophet in modern-day casual dress, drinking tea from an earthenware cup and eating rough bread. He sets the scene against the backdrop of a Welsh hillside while a flaming-red angelic raven not only brings him food but even appears to act, empathetically, as his companion. In his representations of animals in stories with a biblical background, the artist emphasizes that the unusual behaviour of creatures is not simply due to an intervention from on high. Rather, he works from the perspective that the animals are acting from free will which, he argues, is even more compelling and miraculous an idea than having God make them behave against their natures. ‘By such means’ the artist has stated in conversation, ‘I try to find my way into these familiar stories so that I can explore and depict them anew’.
The artist’s distinctive representation of Elijah and the raven adds something new, fresh, and vibrant to the story’s traditional iconography: Hicks-Jenkins, with his keen sense of place, replaces the Wadi Cherith with a green vibrant Welsh hillside, while the dazzling colour of the raven, with wings almost on fire, invites the viewer to reflect on God’s unusual emissary, chosen from the natural world (later it will be an angel, from a supernatural world, who offers Elijah sustenance in 1 Kings 19:5). But, most importantly, the figure of Elijah in contemporary casual garb, evokes the Jewish–Christian interpretation of a prophet who never died and so is very likely to re-appear in any guise, any ethnicity, and in any place or age—here, in sombre mood on an obscure Welsh hillside.
O’Kane, Martin. 2018. ‘Painting the Prophet Elijah: The Artistic Appeal’, in The Cultural Reception of the Bible: Explorations in Theology, Literature, and the Arts, ed. by Salvador Ryan and Liam M. Tracey (Dublin: Four Courts Press), pp. 223–24
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.”