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Rehoboam, Jeroboam and the subsequent Kings of Israel and Judah

The Wife of Jeroboam and the Prophet Ahiiah

Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-1681). Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lille. 1671.

Under Rehoboam, all the people of Israel assembled at Shechem and asked the new king to lighten their yoke. But Rehoboam spoke harshly to the people. Revolt fomented then in Israel.

Jeroboam came back from Egypt and he fortified Shechem and Penuel and settled there. But Jeroboam built altars for other gods in Israel. So Israel was not only divided politically, but also religiously. Jeroboam consecrated priests as he wished and he chose priests from among the common people instead of from the Levites. Such conduct proved for Yahweh that the house of Jeroboam was a sinful house. This would cause the ruin of the House of Israel, Jeroboam’s dynasty. Jeroboam reigned from 931 to 910 BC. Yahweh promised disaster to the house of Jeroboam.

At that time Jeroboam’s son fell sick. Jeroboam told his wife to disguise herself and go to Shiloh to see the prophet Ahiiah there, the prophet who had said that Jeroboam would be king of ten tribes of Israel. So Jeroboam’s wife went to Shiloh and arrived at the house of Ahiiah who was so old that he could not see anymore. His eyes were fixed with age. But Ahiiah anyhow received the woman and told her he had bad news for her and for her husband. He told her that Jeroboam had not been like David. David had kept Yahweh’s commandments. Ahiiah further said that Yahweh knew that Jeroboam had done much evil, since the king had cast idols of metal that had angered Yahweh. Yahweh had confided to Ahiiah that for this he would bring disaster on the house of Jeroboam, wipe out every maniac of the family and sweep away the house of Jeroboam as a man sweeps away dung till none was left. Ahiiah continued the sad foreboding. He told the woman to return home. The moment she would enter the town her child would die. Ahiiah promised also that Yahweh would abandon Israel for all the sin that Jeroboam had committed. When Jeroboam’s wife arrived back in Tirzah, her child died as Ahiiah had prophesied.

Israel was split in two kingdoms now, a kingdom of the North called Israel and a kingdom of the South called of Judah.

Rehoboam reigned only over Judah and from 931 to 913 BC. During Rehoboam’s reign Shishak, king of Egypt, advanced on Jerusalem. Shishak took away the treasures and the Temple of Yahweh and of the royal palace. Warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam continued.

Rehoboam was succeeded by his son Asa who reigned in Judah from 913 to 911 BC. Asa reigned from 911 to 870 BC.

His son Nadab succeeded Jeroboam, King of Israel. Nadab reigned from 910 to 909 BC. Then Nadab was succeeded by his own son Baasha, who reigned from 909 to 886 BC. Baasha’s son Eliah reigned after him from 886 to 885 BC. Eliah was slain by one of his officers called Zimri while he was drinking himself senseless. Zimri was king for a few days but the people of Israel proclaimed the army commander Omri to king. Omri ruled from 885 to 874 BC. Then Ahab, son of Omri became king of Israel and reigned from 874 to 853 BC. All these kings of Israel did what displeased Yahweh. They erected altars to foreign gods such as to Baal and Yahweh promised revenge on the kings of Israel.

The Wife of Jeroboam

Frans van Mieris was a Dutch genre painter. He was born in Leiden in 1635, the son of a goldsmith, and he worked his whole life in this port town of the Northern Netherlands which had become independent from Spain and the German Empire, and a Protestant powerhouse of trade. Van Mieris painted early and was a student of another Leiden painter, Gerard Dou. Dou was also a master of genre painting, which represented simple scenes of everyday Dutch life. Van Mieris was already a master of the guild of St Luke in Leiden in 1658. He painted portraits, many genre scenes, and in-door scenes of Dutch bourgeois people. His pictures had a strong moralising character hidden beneath an otherwise innocent, nice depiction. They also had a frivolous undertone, for which the viewer might expect that van Mieris condemned the intentions. But van Mieris painted the scenes with such skill that he became one of the most successful artists of Leiden. He founded a generation of painter artists, because also his son Jan and his grandson Frans van Mieris the Younger were renowned painters in their own times. Frans the Elder died in Leiden in 1681.

Frans van Mieris the Elder was also a painter of very small formats, even of miniatures. His picture of ‘The Wife of Jeroboam and the Prophet Ahiiah is also very small: it is barely 24 by 20 centimetres. Th painting is exquisite in its small dimensions. Van Mieris used only one main colour: a shade of brown-red and he only applied together with that hue a broken white or lighter version of this hue. The viewer sees in this equal mood a monk with a pilgrim’s staff seated next to a table. A lady in wealthy robe stands close to the monk. The only other element of interest in this painting seems to be a small dog situated between the feet of the monk and the woman. So at first sight, the picture represents nothing more but the visit of a rich lady to an elder monk and she seems to bring charity to the old man.

The monk is however the Prophet Ahiiah, says the title. The Prophet is a wise old man with a white beard, as he should be. The Bible story says the man was blind and Ahiiah looks before him without really seeing the woman. He holds a hand to the table, apparently grasping for a hold, but in fact he seems to push away, to hide the objects that are on the table. The man tugs away something that is folded in a cloth and that strangely looks like a pig’s head. He may also push away the money that lies on the table, surprised as he has been by the sudden arrival of the woman. He may have a reputation of being a poor, moneyless Prophet, but he lacks nothing and indeed, he looks imploringly with a bent head, but he has no emaciated face. The prophet is well fed and he sits in a wooden chair that is ample like a throne. His brown Franciscan monk clothes hide a well-filled body. Ahiiah has put his foot on a thick book. He may once have been reading the book – maybe an old Bible – but now it serves only to rest his foot. If he was a Franciscan, Catholic monk, he showed disdain for the Bible that was so revered by the seventeenth century Dutch Protestants. Next to the feet of the Prophet is the dog, a plaything of wealth, a symbol of luxury. Van Mieris with such images, hidden away in small details of his picture, shows the past vanity of the monk. Above Ahiiah van Mieris painted a gourd and that may have contained water, but more probably ale or wine. If Ahiiah is represented as a Franciscan monk, van Mieris indicated the open distrust of the Protestant Dutch for the – in their view - hypocrite Catholic Orders.

The wife of King Jeroboam has come disguised. She is barefoot, wears no jewels and she has a dark cap on her head, a cap that is not so very different from the Prophet’s cap. But the cap of the woman is black and much longer, as she had to hide her long, well-cared-for hair. She was not able to, nor did she want entirely to abandon the signs of her true status. So she wears a marvellous silk robe in the purple hue of emperors. Frans van Mieris used all his skills in showing in minute detail the play of light on the folds of the robe and on the velvet cloak she wears over her shoulders. And the velvet opens above her breast in a coquettish way. Van Mieris showed here what a fine painter he was and these details alone would have pleasured any commissioner. ‘Ahiiah and the Wife of Jeroboam’ was made in 1671. Van Mieris was a fully accomplished painter by then. Van Mieris could choose his subjects and show them as he liked.

Frans van Mieris showed behind the woman a window and through the window the viewer may discern the hazy figure o a man wearing a luxurious head cap. This may be just a courtier hiding outside, but van Mieris might also have suggested with this shadow the King Jeroboam himself. So behind the woman stands the ghost of the King, eagerly watching the scene and awaiting the verdict. The whole picture therefore, with all its figures, is a disguise.

The woman brings her hand humbly to her hearth to greet and to talk to the Prophet, and then she pleads. But she also holds a simple earthen pot behind her back, hidden from the eyes of the Prophet. The Prophet Ahiiah was blind when Jeroboam’s wife went to visit him, but Prophets can see without eyes, so the attempt of the woman to hide the pot seems futile. Still, her intuitive gesture was to hide the pot on her side. Does she really believe the man is blind? Maybe she knows the monk is not really blind at all, maybe she fears the powers of the blind seer. What does the pot contain? Water, oil, food or coins? Jeroboam’s wife may have brought with her a considerable amount of money. The dog is also at her feet, a sign of wealth since such a pet dog has no other use but being a companion of abundance.

The woman and the prophet have things to hide. The Prophet hides his gluttony of old, lonely age. He still shows his past glory and power but no viewer will be fooled. The woman hides her intentions but her nice clothes and her dog prove who she really is. King Jeroboam is even worse since he hides altogether, his whole presence. The woman has come with coins hidden in a pot but she will only use that if necessary. Frans van Mieris the Elder’s picture is a picture of hide and seek with the viewer. Here is a world of appearances and like the Prophet Ahiiah who was blind, the painter seems to convey the message that we too are blind for the real state of affairs of the bourgeois world we live in. Dutch genre painting emphasised this aspect of the vanity of people and the underlying sins or weaknesses of mankind and of society.

The true character of the scene is now clear. The monk is poor, but he hides all the food, a big pig’s head he has received. A pot of ale hangs above his head. He is an old wise man, but he secretly loves the nice things of life and these amply. He lives in the sin of daintiness. The woman has come in disguise, but the viewer recognises her as a wealthy woman in her magnificent robe and in her plaything of a dog. She secretly thinks that Ahiiah can still see; she believes he is not blind. She has come to consult the Prophet, but she knows that her pleas will be all the more effective if she brings money or presents. She has come to bring charity, but she knows that charity is not necessary here. Yet, she keeps up appearances, the appearances that the Protestant Churches denounced so much. Neither the monk nor the woman have illusions left about the other or about the situation. Appearances are recognised and treated with hypocrisy; but man and woman need each other. Van Mieris of course painted a Catholic monk and a rich, bourgeois Dutch lady. In this way, a story from the bible was diverted into a genre scene with an underlying very apparent moral tone. In fact, the title referring to the Bible story is but an element needed for the understanding of the moral message of the viewer. Without that title the viewer may have wondered at the real meaning of the scene; the title allows to solve the rebus of symbols.

Suppose you were a rich merchant of the sea town of Leiden. You have no television, no photographs in journals, and no images in publicity folders. You have eyes of course and your eyes are avid for some beauty in your house. You would be avid for pictures, for paintings to hang on your walls because that would be the only decoration you would be able to acquire. But your preachers and religious teachers would bang at you incessantly about the vanity of the world and the dire state of society, a society of richness as the Dutch had never seen before in their history. Then a small picture such as Frans van Mieris’ ‘The Prophet Ahiiah and the Wife of Jeroboam’ would be a sheer delight. Your preacher would see no issue with the picture since it represented a Bible theme. It would be a delight of decoration because it is marvellously painted in a wonderful wealth of varying shades of colour. It would be only a small painting, so only a small surrender to pleasure. It would hang in a corner, to be discovered only in the passing. It would show a pretty lady in the middle. And each time you would pass by you would smile at the details that the painter had explained to you or that you had by now discovered. You might not have brought the people around you into the secret, but otherwise you might have shared a laugh. You would have been delighted with the picture, knowing it was a scene from the venerable Bible but with a very moral tone. The picture would remind you of the vanity and hypocrisy of the world outside, and of the protection of your home. You would be satisfied. And that made the success and fame of Frans van Mieris the Elder. The Dutch merchants just flocked to his workshop to buy his pictures.

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