Prophet Elijah in the Wilderness by Unknown Byzantine artist, Thessalonica

Unknown Byzantine artist, Thessalonica

Prophet Elijah in the Wilderness, Late 14th–15th century, Tempera on panel, 33.5 x 28 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, I-187, akg-images / Album

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The Elijah Icon

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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.

 

References

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


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