The prophet Elijah is unique in Orthodox Christian tradition in that he is the only Old Testament figure to receive detailed individual treatment on icons. That he was able to gaze on the full glory of Christ during the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36) ensured that his partial, yet intense, experience of the divine in the cave at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:9–14) would forever hold a central place in Orthodox spirituality.
The prophet must be portrayed according to a strict iconographical canon, summed up by Dionysius of Fourna, author of the eighteenth-century manual on icon painting:
Elijah should be presented as an old man with a white beard. There should be a cave with the prophet sitting inside it; he rests his chin and leans his elbow on his knee. Above the cave, a raven watches him and carries bread in its beak. (1974: 24)
The icon combines two episodes: the ravens bringing food to Elijah as described in 1 Kings 17:6, and Elijah’s mystical experience in the cave, reported in somewhat veiled language in 1 Kings 19:12. The cave encloses the prophet whose mantle touches its darkness on all sides. Orthodox writers stress that the symbolism of the darkness in Elijah icons reflects not so much the personal despair of the prophet as the notion of divine transcendence expressed through Gregory of Nyssa’s theology of darkness, according to which darkness, our essential ‘unknowingness’ of God, represents the culmination of the mystical experience of the divine (Life of Moses, 2:163).
Traditionally, before icon painters began their work, they were required to draw the great eye of God on the unpainted panel and write the word ‘God’ underneath it to remind them that the icon, like a transparent membrane, is not only an image for the viewer to engage with but also a medium through which God beholds the viewer. In this icon, the position of the cave approximates to where the eye of God would have been drawn. Now faded and tattered with age, the icon offers a very moving witness to the esteem given to the prophet by many Orthodox believers through the centuries.
Andreopoulos, Andreas. 2005. Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)
Dionysius of Fourna. 1974. The Painter’s Manual, trans. by Paul Hetherington (London: Sagittarius Press)
Gregory of Nyssa. 1978. Life of Moses, trans. by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press)
O’Kane, Martin. 2007. ‘The Biblical Elijah and His Visual Afterlives’, in Between the Text and Canvas: The Bible and Art in Dialogue, ed. by J. Cheryl Exum and Ela Nutu (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press), pp. 61–79
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.”