Friday, July 20, 2018

An Icon of the Prophet Elijah

In the liturgical Calendar of the Byzantine Rite, and in the two Carmelite Orders, July 20th is the feast of the Prophet Elijah. The Eastern tradition keeps almost all of the Prophets as Saints, and honors them as such in the liturgy. Veneration of Saints of the Old Testament is hardly known to the West, however, and where it is observed in the Latin rites, it arose under Eastern influence. The Carmelites, who came into existence as an Order in the Holy Land, honor Elijah as their founder, and keep his day as one of their patronal feasts, along with that of his disciple Elisha, on June 14th.

Some time ago, I stumbled across this extraordinary icon of the Ascension of the Prophet Elijah, from the website of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens.

Painted by Theodore Poulakis in the second half of the 17th century, this icon comes from a church dedicated to St Elijah in Ano Korakiana on the island of Corfu; it was badly damaged after being stolen from the church and cut into pieces, but remains an impressive piece of work, and an interesting example of Western artistic influence on Byzantine sacred art. The central band is based on an engraving by Flemish artist Jan Wierix (see below); according to the Museum’s website, Flemish engravings were widely used as inspirations for icons in the Ionian islands from the 17th century on. It shows the Ascension of Elijah, with Elisha below his chariot receiving his mantle; on the left, Elisha shows the mantle to the “sons of the prophets” who had accompanied them to the Jordan, but not crossed over with them. (4 Kings 2)

The engraving by Jan Wierix, from the website of the British Museum
In the lower right of the central band, the patron who commissioned the work, a priest and monk named Sophronios Faskomelosis, identified by the inscription in front of him, kneels in prayer; on the opposite side is the city of Jerusalem. In the other bands are shown other episodes from the life of Elijah; at the upper left are three episodes from 3 Kings 17, where he first appears in the Bible, conversing with the widow at Sarephta, receiving food from a raven, and raising the widow’s son from the dead. In the lower band, the prophet defeats and slaughters the prophets of the idol Baal (chapter 18), and destroys the soldiers of the wicked King Ahab sent to apprehend him. All of the episodes depicted in this icon are traditionally read at Vespers of the Prophet Elijah in the Byzantine Rite. The artist’s signature is given at the lower left.

An Apolytikion (dismissal hymn) from Vespers of the Prophet Elijah: The one hallowed before his conception, the Angel embodied, the mind of fire, the man of heaven, the godlike forerunner of the second coming of Christ. the glorious Elias, the foundation of the Prophets has spiritually invited all lovers of festivals to celebrate his godly memory. At his intercessions guard your people, O Christ God, untroubled from every kind of harm of the trickster.

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