This post continues my series on Old Testament themes in the National Gallery of Art
here in D.C. For the preceding post in the series, click here
. Let's look at a spectacular painting of Elijah, the legendary champion of God from the ninth century bce. Elijah is a favorite subject of artists, and in all periods they have illustrated his adventures.
This painting (ca. 1510) of Elijah Fed by the Raven
was one of my favorites on the SBL tour that we took back in November. It is by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, who lived ca. 1480 - 1548. The scene is taken primarily from 1 Kings 17, but other moments are also superimposed. In the upper right-hand corner you can see a raven feeding Elijah, as commanded by God, during the drought God was imposing to demonstrate to the people that their false Baal worship would not bring them the bounty they desired. The huge black bird seems to have a chunk of bread or a roll in its beak for the prophet.
Opposite the raven, in the upper left of the painting, you can glimpse a scene from the end of the Elijah adventures: Elijah's translation to heaven in a chariot of fire with horses of fire (2 Kings 2). Elijah's blessing of perpetual presence with God is an early pointer in the OT to God's power and plan eventually to defeat the forces of death and Sheol that fight to separate us from God and the community of faith. The apostle Paul proclaimed that all believers would somehow experience this blessing of Elijah (see 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
There is a group of people in the lower left of the detail-image above, who probably belong to the same superimposed scene of the translation of Elijah (2 Kings 2). Elijah's successor, Elisha, has probably just taken up the mantle of Elijah that has fallen from him from the air (2 Kings 2:13). He will strike the waters of the Jordan river with it, dividing them so that he may cross over. Like his master Elijah, Elisha will have the role and power of Moses. In each generation, God has a servant who points people to God's awesome, spine-tingling reality. In each generation, God uses God's servants to call people back to discipleship (see Deuteronomy 18:15-19).
Notice Elijah's face, with its reflective intensity. Any comments on what might be up here? Is he merely receiving the divine command to move on to Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-9)? Is Elijah contemplating his role as a Mosaic prophet and the eventual rise of Elisha in the chain of Mosaic succession?
Or, perhaps, is he already listening to God's still, small "articulate whisper" (1 Kings 19:12)? He does look to me to be cupping his hand to his ear, intent on receiving divine Word. The painting may stress the crucial role of God's verbal, inspired revelation in the progress of salvation history. Comments welcome...