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The Prophet Elijah and King Ahab

Elijah fed by the Angel

Jacopo Robusti called Tintoretto (1519-1594). Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Venice. Ca. 1577/1578.

Elijah in the Desert

Ferdinand Olivier (1785-1841). Neue Pinakothek. Munich. 1830-1831.

The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Bernardo Strozzi called IL Cappuccino (1581-1644). Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna. Ca. 1640.

Under the reign of Ahab, King of Israel, the prophet Elijah the Tishbite of Gilead said to the king that by Yahweh there would be neither dew nor rain unless he, the prophet, gave the word. That meant famine in Israel. Elijah was instructed by Yahweh to go east and hide in the ravine of the torrent Cherith, east of the Jordan. Elijah would drink from the water there and the ravens brought him bread in the morning and meat in the evening as ordained by Yahweh.

But the stream dried up like all the water in Israel. Yahweh ordered Elijah to go to Zarephath in Sidonia. Yahweh ordered a widow there to give food to Elijah. She said she only had a very little bread and oil for herself and her son. But Elijah told her not to be afraid. The woman went and did as Elijah had said. They ate the food and drank. The jar of meal was not spent nor the jug of oil emptied. This was as Yahweh had foretold to Elijah.

Sometimes later the son of the house of the woman of Zarephath fell sick and he died. Elijah prayed to God. He took the son from the widow and carried him to the upper room where he lived and laid him on the bed. Elijah then cried out to Yahweh. He stretched himself three times on the child, begging life into him again. Yahweh sent the child’s soul back into the body so that Elijah could give the son back to the widow.

After these events Yahweh told Elijah to return to Ahab, King of Israel, and bring rain back to the country.

On his way Elijah met Obadiah, the master of the palace. Obadiah had been sent out by Ahab to meet Elijah, but Obadiah did not want to return to the king as messenger of Elijah. Elijah persuaded Obadiah to go back to the king and Obadiah thus preceded Elijah. In each other’s presence, Ahab called Elijah the scourge of Israel. But Elijah explained that the famine had come over Israel because of the king, Ahab, who had deserted Yahweh. Elijah demanded of Ahab to gather around him on Mount Carmel all Israel and also the four hundred prophets of Baal who were with Jezebel, Ahab’s wife. Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians and she had lured Ahab into serving Baal. Jezebel butchered the prophets of Israel.

When all were gathered on Mount Carmel, Elijah took two bulls. He gave one to the priests of Baal and kept one for himself. He proposed a challenge to Israel. The priests of Baal could dismember the bull and call on the fire of Baal to consume the bull. Elijah would do the same with his second bull. The hundreds of prophets of Baal performed their rites and called on their god all day, but no fire came to consume their offer. Then Elijah dismembered his bull and put the meat on wood. He had three times four jars of water poured over the wood. When Elijah prayed to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, God sent his fire to consume the burnt offering and the flames licked up all the water. Then all Israel cried, ‘Yahweh is God!’ Elijah had the prophets of Baal captured, took them down the Kishon and he slaughtered them all.

Elijah then climbed on top of Mount Carmel and began to pray. He sent a servant to look at the sea. Seven times Elijah told him to go back. The seventh time the servant saw a small cloud rise from the sea. Then the sky grew black and rain fell in torrents.

Jezebel wanted to kill Elijah for having slaughtered her priests of Baal. Elijah fled from her wrath. He journeyed to Horeb and an angel of God touched him in his desperation and gave him to eat scones and water to drink. Elijah journeyed thus for forty days sustained by the angel. Then he arrived in a cave on Horeb and spent the night there.

Yahweh one day told Elijah to go to the top of the mountain and stand there before Yahweh. Yahweh sent a hurricane and earthquakes and a fire to the mountain. But God was not in the hurricane nor in the earthquake nor in the fire. Then came a light murmur. Elijah covered his face and Yahweh spoke. He asked what Elijah was doing on Horeb. Elijah answered he had come because Israel had abandoned the covenant. Then Yahweh told Elijah to go back and to traverse the desert again. He told Elijah to anoint Hazael as King of Aram and to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king of Israel. Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-Mehordah needed to be anointed prophet to succeed on Elijah. Then God pursued by saying that anyone of Israel who would escape the sword of Hazael would be put to death by Jehu and Elisha would kill anyone who fled from Jehu. But Yahweh would spare seven thousand of Israel, all the knees that had not bent before Baal. Elijah came down mount Horeb and he found Elisha who was ploughing behind twelve yoke of oxen. Elisha followed Elijah and became his servant.

Elijah and the Angel

Jacopo Robusti was a Venetian, born in 1519. He lived a life of an artist all the time in Venice and died there in 1594. He was called Tintoretto after his father’s profession. His father was a dyer of silk materials. He was a painter early, his talents recognised early, and he was already an independent master at twenty. He married when he was around thirty years old, in 1550, to a daughter of a Guardian of one of the Venetian Scuole and he had several children who worked with him. Besides two sons, Domenico (born in 1560) and Marco (born 1566) he had a girl, Marietta (born in 1554) who was the most gifted female painter of her time and who worked as his assistant but who remained almost anonymous. When she married, Tintoretto demanded in the marriage certificate that Marietta would continue to work for him. Tintoretto might have wanted to protect his daughter so that she could continue an activity she liked very much, or we can see in this the absolute egotism of an artist wanting to keep one of his most gifted assistants in his workshop.

In 1564 he began to work in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco of Venice, a relatively new Scuola, founded only in 1478. This Scuola was a fund of mutual social support for Venetians. The Scuola di San Rocco aimed at relieving the sick that fell victim to epidemics. Many wealthy Venetians offered money to Saint Roch, to its miraculous relics and thus to the Scuola. The Guardians of the Scuole had decided in Tintoretto’s life times to build a new chapter house. The social support funds of Venice were rich, very rich, so the new building that was begun in 1517 by the well-known architect Bartolomeo Bon was sumptuous. The work on the building was only finished in 1549, but the Scuola worked for eternity and not for speed. Last touches were made as late as 1560. It had been decided already in 1546 to decorate the walls of the Sala dell’Albergo but it was only in 1564 that the decision was put to realisation. The thirty-six councillors would support the expense of the central canvas on the ceiling of the first hall. To that aim, a competition was opened. Jacopo Robusti surprised everybody by not bringing a cartoon or sketch but the work itself, a ‘Glorification of St Roch’. Tintoretto donated the painting for free, maybe because he saw that the councillors were not very pleased by him having twisted their intentions. He even proposed to decorate without payment the rest of the ceiling. But afterwards, Tintoretto would receive commissions for other paintings in the Scuola, which he made in oil on canvas. He worked on paintings for the Scuola in this way from 1564 until 1588. He delivered sixty paintings in all, which have been preserved, so that now the whole makes not only of the Scuola di San Rocco one of the main attractions of Venice and one of the most imposing monuments of the lagoon city, but it is also the lifetime monumental work of the painter Tintoretto, to be compared only with the absolutely very greatest works of the genius artists of Italy. The Tintoretto cycle in San Rocco can only be rivalled in power of expression by the Vatican ceiling and altar wall of Michelangelo in the Vatican.

The picture ‘Elijah fed by the Angel’ was made in 1577 to 1578. It is an oval oil painting in the ceiling of the Upper Hall. The pictures of this ceiling were all made between 1575 and 1581, in total thirty-four paintings, all made by Tintoretto and these are a very impressive unity of realisation. Tintoretto proposed scenes from the life of Moses, from other Old Testament themes such as Genesis, Isaac and Jacob, the Prophets Jonah, Ezekiel, Elijah and Elisha, and various themes from the life of Jesus Christ.

The oval ‘Elijah fed by the Angel’ is a very fine and very powerful theme presented by Jacopo Robusti. He showed the Prophet sleeping and he painted him lying on the ground in an open space in the wood, with his legs towards the viewer. The Prophet sleeps and rests on the road to Horeb. In a dramatic depiction, an angel literally falls out of the sky and focuses on Elijah. The angel had food, bread and water, in its hands. Elijah sleeps under a furze bush, as the Bible story tells, and soon the angel will touch Elijah. The angel will tell to Elijah, ‘Arise and eat’.

The angel brings bread and water and on this side of the Upper Hall of the Scuola, near the altar, are other paintings related to the Eucharist, the Mass ritual of the holy Host and the wine that Jesus offered to his disciples at Last Supper. Other scenes are ‘Elisha multiplying the Loaves’, two ‘Last Supper’ pictures, and the ‘Miracle of the Loaves and Fish’ from the life of Christ.

The colours on Elijah are marvellous. Tintoretto painted a yellow-golden robe on the Prophet, and a red cloak. But Tintoretto used very many other hues, brown, grey, and even green, to show in the chiaroscuro shading of light the forms of Elijah’s body under the cloth. One might think that the painter would have been frugal in his use of so many hues for a painting that would be hung so high, but Tintoretto painted in his studio and then presented every picture to the Scuola councillors from close by, so that every painting had to be a masterpiece in its own right before it was hung high.

Wonderful colours also, shades of white and of yellow and brown are on the angel. Tintoretto painted the angel’s wings in broad brushstrokes and that gives an effect of a tactile experience, of three-dimensionality as one feather seems to cover another also physically on the canvas. Also the golden brown hair of the angel’s head is rendered in full detail and Tintoretto showed in a splendid way the play of the light of dawn on the angel’s robe and on its hair. The angel falls down more than it flies in the sky and Tintoretto showed the angel in one of the most immediate positions one could depict of that action. The angel drops head first so that Tintoretto drew it in dramatic foreshortening. A viewer, looking from below, also thus sees the angel as if it really came down through an opening in the ceiling of the Upper Hall.

Tintoretto painted the body of Elijah in one oblique direction and the angel in another slanting line, almost perpendicular to the first. Caravaggio could not have shown two figures more efficiently in the heath of action and Tintoretto was certainly one of the very first painters of Mannerism, or already of Baroque, to use slanting lines in this spectacular way to give the viewer a strong impression of movement and of course illusion of action. For Tintoretto only the action counted and no rules of academicism would retain him from giving a powerful impression to viewers.

Tintoretto also painted a landscape in the oval. He painted the juniper tree and a bush on either die, so that he obtained a basic open space in the middle, not unlike an ‘Open V’ structure of composition. In the middle then he painted the rising light of dawn, very bright, as if the divine light suddenly was on Elijah and on the angel. Tintoretto also painted the plants and their overlapping leaves in a wonderful, realistic way, in which he used his technique of seemingly rapid but unwavering brushstrokes.

Jacopo Tintoretto knew perfectly what a powerful visual representation was to be. He had a global idea of the view he would represent and only the essence of that really counted. He then used elements of design of the art of painting completely freely, as necessary for his vision, and he let no rules or conventions hamper him. Painting was only a tool totally subservient to his expressive powers. The expression was all-important for Tintoretto. He had a vision of a scene like this and then everything he had at his disposal in the art of painting, all elements of design, could be used to express his view. Thus the suddenness of the appearance of the angel is the main idea in ‘Elijah fed by the Angel’.

Once the main idea shown to the viewer, the viewer could add details by his or her own imagination. Thus, Tintoretto did not paint Elijah and the angel in full. The viewer looks through a window of vision at the scene, through an oval opening in the ceiling, and in the rapidity of the action the feet of Elijah, part of a leg of the angel and part of the angel’s wings are outside the frame. No matter, the viewer has caught the action and ‘sees’ the rest even though it is not all in the picture. The viewer sees the head and the tin cup of water, he or she sees the angel falling and the sleeping Elijah, and the two heads together in the intimate embrace of the miracle. That is the idea of the picture and the rest is after all not that important. But Tintoretto does not neglect the rest; he handled enough details to prove that he wanted to show the act of the falling angel this way deliberately.

Jacopo Tintoretto dominated fully his art with a great feeling for the necessities of the position of a canvas in a whole, like in the setting of a large hall such as the Upper Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. He was an exceptional painter, who like Caravaggio, who was fifty years younger, inexorably brought Italian painting to a style we now call Baroque. But the tensions of the action in Tintoretto’s pictures make the painter still an artist of Mannerism. ‘Elijah fed by the Angel’ is an excellent example of such pictures.

Elijah in the Desert

Ferdinand Olivier was born in 1785 in Dessau, an industrial town of Germany not so far from Berlin. He learned to paint quite early, first in Dessau and then in Berlin where he arrived in 1802. In 1804 he went with his brother Heinrich to Dresden, studied painting there also and learned to know Germany’s Romantic painters working around Caspar David Friedrich. Together with his brother he was in Paris from 1807 to 1810 and later travelled to Vienna. Ferdinand Olivier knew many of Austria’s and of Germany’s great Romantic painters: Joseph Anton Koch, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Philipp Veit and others. Although he was a Protestant he had close friendships with the Catholic painters of the circle of the Nazarenes in Vienna and he became even a member of their ‘Lukasbund’ in 1916. But he stayed in Vienna and returned even to Germany, to Munich, where he became a professor of the history of art. Ferdinand Olivier painted at first religious scenes, as he was closer to the religious revival in the arts of the Nazarenes. His brother Friedrich was completely caught in the Nazarene movement and even lived a time with the Nazarene community in Rome. The great German landscape painters influenced Ferdinand Olivier in the later period of his work, from 1830 on. Olivier belonged to a family of painters. His brother two brothers, Heinrich and Friedrich painted and knew the Nazarene movement. German and Austrian painters had founded in Rome in 1810 a community in a former convent, the convent of Sant’Isidro. The painters wore their hair long and hence the Romans somewhat mockingly called them ‘Nazarenes’ after Jesus of Nazareth.

With ‘Elijah in the Desert’ Ferdinand Olivier went back to a religious Bible theme from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Gillis van Valckenborgh (1570-1622) painted for instance a picture of the theme with much skill at landscape painting that is now in the Musée d’ Art Ancien of Brussels, and Ferdinand Olivier must have seen that painting or engravings or copies of this picture, because he used the same poise in his Elijah.

The Prophet Elijah sits in what is not yet a desert, but will soon be one. Elijah prophesied a long draught ordered by Yahweh to punish King Ahab. Yahweh told Elijah to go to the brook of Cherith. Yahweh sent his raven to feed Elijah there. So Olivier showed Elijah sitting near the small river that will soon dry up. The water is very low already, and disappearing. A raven flies through the air with a loaf of bread in its beak. Elijah sits and with one hand he points to the raven sent by Yahweh; with the other he points to a fig tree. The fig tree was the symbol for the coming kingdom of the Messiah. Elijah stretches his arms in a sign that reminds of Jesus’ Crucifixion. Like in Van Valckenborgh’s picture, the main objective of Ferdinand Olivier’s picture was the landscape.

Olivier painted a nice landscape. He made preparatory sketches of it, which are also conserved in the Neue Pinakothek of Munich, proving the seriousness with which he undertook this painting of Elijah in the desert. Yet, the composition of the painting is very conventional. Olivier used of course the ‘Open V’ structure. He painted a few trees on the left, a rock and high trees on the right, and he placed the lightest colours in the middle. But there are enough variations in the structure to make a viewer see only the variety of the plants and of the landscape and not a strict structure of lines. Olivier painted the trees in nice detail and the way he painted the different zones of illumination on them is brilliant. So is the way he let the sun of dawn glow the sand of the starting desert, to a very bright hue. Olivier here indicated what the story of the bible told. The sun rises from the right side of the frame and Olivier showed such a strong light here that it completely makes the shades of the far mountains disappear in the blinding light. That light of course will scourge the earth and bring desert to the few bushes among which sits Elijah.

Ferdinand Olivier made a picture full of Romantic nostalgia and admiration for a landscape of trees and desert. In that he combined the main theme of the German Romantic painters of Dresden, who centred on landscape painting, with the religious themes of the Nazarenes. But his picture reminds of the style of the seventeenth century Baroque artists in its sue of dark shadowing and less of the more Classicist Nazarenes who painted their scenes in the traditional all-pervasive light or early Renaissance pictures. ‘Elijah in the Desert’ is a nice picture however, that shows again with much skill a very old theme in the art of religious painting. The themes of the seventeenth century also were thus revivened by the Nazarenes.

Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Bernardo Strozzi lived a very unusual career. He was born in 1581 in Genoa. At the age of seventeen he entered the Capuchin Order and form 1610 on he was a priest. Hence he was later called ‘Il Cappuccino’. He had learned to paint, but from 1614 to 1621 he was an engineer of the harbour of Genoa. He left his religious order and went to Venice around 1631. He painted during this time, before he came to Venice, taking inspiration from the styles of Simon Vouet and Orazio Gentileschi, Pieter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and the Bassano painters of Venice. The great Brabant painter Rubens was in Italy from 1600 to 160! And besides Rome and Venice, he had also stayed in Genoa. Likewise, van Dyck was in Italy from 1620 to 1627, staying mainly in Venice, Rome and the port of Genoa. Strozzi was a Baroque artist whose depiction became gradually more individual. He died in Venice in 1644.

Bernardo Strozzi’s ‘The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath’ is a truly splendid though apparently humble picture. It is a painting of portraiture, but it shows three figures in an act of interrogation. The composition is very strong for Strozzi formed a pyramid with outlines of the Prophet and the woman, a structure well known by portraitists. A find of depiction is the figure of the widow’s son that comes like an intrusion between the woman and the man and separates them in an innocent way, but maybe laden with psychological significance.

We see the Prophet still wearing his cane, so he just entered the house. The prophet is an old but still a very strong man. Strozzi shows a muscled, powerful arm and a firm grip around the cane. He also opened the shirt of the Prophet to show strong shoulders and chest. Elijah holds an imploring hand forward, but the hand is also held in a gesture of explanation, as it is open, asking instead of ordering. So with a very simple means Bernardo Strozzi proved the act of the Prophet. He also drew the head of the Prophet inclined in an attitude of plea and appeal. Strozzi painted really marvellous but deep colours on the prophet: grey-brown in the over-shirt, grey-blue in the cloak and Strozzi contrasted these with a pure white of the man’s shirt. The way Strozzi painted the old head with the grey beard and grey hair of Elijah is simply impressive in art. Strozzi brought Caravaggio’s realism to Venice, but he did not apply the dramatic contrasts between light and dark of this master and seemed to love Venice’s sense and beauty of colours. Strozzi had enormous talents but he very intelligently had the Prophet look at the widow, away from the viewer, so that he did not boast with his skills and entirely subdued them to the force and necessity of the depiction of the theme.

The widow of Zarephath is ready to hear what the Prophet has to say. Elijah may have only whispered, while asking for food. So she inclines her head too, bringing it close towards the Prophet’s head. Her face is young, plain and open but handsome and she is very willing to hear out the Prophet. She comes near with her head to the old man, which allowed Strozzi not only to form the pyramid structure in his painting, but also in a very fine way, very subtly but very efficiently for the viewer, to show the psychology of the woman in the conversation. The woman listens and she good-heartedly would give what the prophet asks, but a part of her instinctively also holds back; so she keeps her hands on the cruse of oil and on the barrel of flour that are on the table. The woman is poor but she has full features and she has an intelligent face. Bernardo Strozzi shows the rosy of her cheeks, a full bosom that she tends to the Prophet, a white short of innocence and a black robe. Strozzi used the black robe to make the fine colours of the widow stand out better and probably also to paint at least somewhat in the now desired style of the Roman Caravaggists. The ‘Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath’ is a late work of Strozzi, when he had learned to moderate the exuberance of Baroque.

The widow’s son intrudes between the widow and Elijah. The boy is the most rapid to naively offer water to the Prophet, most spontaneously and openly to react to Elijah’s plea. He looks at the old man with expectation, equally with appeal to the Prophet, maybe hoping for support in return for his gift. He appeals to the prophet like to a father. But at the same time he positions himself also between the prophet and his mother. That is a gesture of protection and also of intuitive defiance. The Prophet is still a strong man, the boy’s mother a beautiful woman that has an opened bust and more than a passing hospitality might grow between the man and the woman. Boy and mother love each other. They resemble each other in facial traits. Elijah might come between the now exclusive love of the boy for the mother, so the boy pushes himself forward in a, intuitively possessive act. The boy also wants to be noticed. His position says, ‘Here is water, but this is my mother, and she is mine.’ Bernardo Strozzi used strong colours on the widow and on Elijah. He used softer tones, cream-flesh colours on the shirt and dress of the boy, indicating less strength in the youth compared to Elijah and the mother.

Bernardo Strozzi painted no objects in the background that could divert the viewer’s attention from his theme, from the psychology of the figures. Strozzi showed two slightly different scenes from the bible story at the same time. The widow’s son gives water to the Prophet and Elijah seems at that instance to assert, to promise that the family would never be lacking anymore in flour and oil, although that happens somewhat later.

Strozzi’s ‘The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath’ is a marvellous picture for connoisseurs. It shows Strozzi’s considerable talent at fine painting without being showy. Strozzi used a very strong composition but he depicted the scene so lively that the composition is practically invisible and does not strike the viewer at first glance. It is unobtrusive, as it should be. The psychology of the characters within the Bible stories is efficiently drawn, but shown in natural gestures that are not theatrical, ostentatious or so tragic as in so very many Baroque paintings. We feel something of the old breath of Giovanni Bellini in this portraiture. Strozzi could have used very contrasting effects of light and shadow and thus brought overwhelming visual power, as Rembrandt or Caravaggio might have done in their best pictures. Bu Strozzi painted instead carefully in splendid colours, fine detail and he did not overpower the viewer with such special visual effects. This is painting at its very best, in a humble but very sophisticated way.

Bernardo Strozzi is quite less well known than Rembrandt or Caravaggio, but in less passion he was more refined. He was a formidable artist in his own right with this picture of ‘Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath’.


Ben-Hadad, King of Aram, mustered his army and drew against Samaria. He demanded silver and gold from Ahab but the King of Israel refused to give it to him. A prophet of Israel came forward and told Ahab to attack the Aramaeans. The Israelites defeated their enemies before Samaria. Then Ben-Hadad marched on Apheb to fight Israel from that place. For seven days the two armies were encamped on opposite sides. A prophet once more foretold a victory for the Israelites and when the battle took place the Israelites slaughtered the Aramaeans. Part of the enemy army fled to Apheb and into the citadel but the city walls collapsed on the survivors of the battle. Ahab captured Ben-Hadad. He let the King of Aram go free, for granting a treaty. Elijah however condemned Ahab for not having killed Ben-Hadad.

Ahab coveted a vineyard close to his palace, a vineyard that did not belong to him. It belonged to a man called Nabaoth. Ahab’s wife Jezebel sent a letter in Ahab’s name to the elders and notables of the city where Nabaoth lived. The letter ordered the elders to stone Nabaoth to death. Nabaoth was an upright man however, so a ruse had to be found to accuse Nabaoth of a crime. Two scoundrels of the city came forward and accused Nabaoth of having cursed God. Nabaoth was stoned to death for that offence. Ahab then could take possession of the vineyard. Yahweh sent Elijah to accuse Ahab of murder. Elijah told that disaster would come upon his house. He said the dogs would eat Jezebel in the Fields of Jezreel. Ahab repented at Elijah’s scorn, tore his clothes and humbled himself. Yahweh saw this and promised not to bring disaster on Ahab’s House in the king’s own days but in those of his son.

After three years of peace with Aram, Ahab King of Israel and Jehoshapat King of Judah decided together to attack Aram. They consulted all the prophets of Israel and all except one predicted a victory for the Israelites. Micaiah son of Imbab told Yahweh had deceived the other prophets because God wanted disaster on Ahab. Ahab threw Micaiah in prison for these words. The two kings of Israel attacked the Aramaeans at the city of Ramoth in Gilead. In the heath of the battle, Ahab was shot by an arrow between the joints of his armour. The fight grew fiercer and the blood gushed from the king’s wounds. In the evening he died.

Ahab was succeeded by Ahaziah who reigned from 853 to 852. Ahaziah revered Baal and this provoked the anger of Yahweh. In Judah however reigned Jehoshaphat from 870 to 848 and he was an upright man. He waged war on Judah’s enemies. His son Jehoram succeeded on him.

Other Paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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