Ilindan – the prophet Elijah in Orthodox iconography

Among the Old Testament prophets, Saint Elijah is one of the most famous, and is respected equally by Orthodox and Roman Catholics, as well as by Jews. This popularity has several reasons, the most important of which are his role as a prophet and a fighter against idolatry. His characters of miracle workers and hermits are of secondary importance, of a later date and were developed through folklore.

The prophet Elijah in the wilderness fresco, Morača, Serbia, 13th century (left), fresco, Gračanica, Serbia, 14th century (right)

Elijah, prophet and fighter against paganism

The prophet Elijah lived in the 9th century AD, in the period following the death of Solomon (970-931) and in which circumstances were very dramatic for the Hebrew people. The country was torn apart by fratricidal wars, religious schisms and attacks by external enemies, which led to the division into two kingdoms – Judea and Israel.

The rulers of that time belonged to different religions and they were imposed on the people without any respect for tradition. The prophets, supported by popular thought, fought against paganism and idolatry, often being put in a position against the ruler and thus becoming the “voice of the people.” This was the case of both the prophet Elijah and his disciple Elisha, who advocated the elohistic tradition and were highly respected by the people. The historical books of the Old Testament (1 Kings 17-21 / 2 Kings 1-2) and Talmudic stories testify to this.

Among Christians, the cult of the prophet Elijah was accepted, first of all, in Palestine, and then during the 4th century, with the strengthening of the Christian church, it spread throughout the entire Byzantine Empire. The monk Chariton, one of the founders of the first hermitages, founded many small anchorite monasteries in the Judean desert, which later developed into a large monastery dedicated to St. Elijah. At the end of the 4th century, the famous Etheria confirmed this in her travelogue “Peregrinatio ad Loca Sancta”. She narrates that, on the occasion of the feast of the birth of Christ, the procession went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, passing through the monastery dedicated to Saint Elijah.

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Saint Elijah, icon, Novgorod, Russia, late 14th century

From Dura Evroposa to Morača

One of the first depictions of the prophet Elijah is found in the form of a wall painting of the synagogue Dura Evropos (245-256), a city located on the west bank of the Euphrates. Then, the Novgorod pilgrim Antonija, in his stories from the trip to Constantinople, before the end of the 12th century, mentions the frescoes of the church of Nea, the Roman emperor Basil I the Macedonian (867-886), which showed the cycle of the prophet Elijah.

However, the oldest preserved display is in the Serbian monastery of Morača and was painted in 1251/52. years. From all the others, this cycle differs in its symbolism very developed in the theophanic sense, thus reflecting new aspirations. Another depiction of the prophet’s cycle is the Russian icon of the Pskov school, which dates back to around 1300, but it has hagiographic significance, without any theophanic features.

The depiction of the prophet Elijah entered Russian iconography around 10/11. century, at a time when his cult was expanding. It is important to mention that the prophet Elijah was the first Christian saint accepted by the Slavs after their conversion to Christianity.

Very early, at the end of the 11th century, the Russians dedicated a church to him, St. Elijah on Slavna, and a street in Novgorod. This popularity can be explained by the fact that his cult was connected with the cult of Perun, the ancient god of thunder among the Slavs. In the continuation, the folklore added to Elijah its most important feature, the power to rule over atmospheric phenomena – rain, hail, drought and fires. Because of that, two churches dedicated to Saint Elijah were built in Novgorod: Saint Elijah Sushni and Saint Elijah Kishni, and the believers, depending on the atmospheric conditions, went to pray in one of these two temples.

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Prophet Elijah in the desert, icon, Russia, 16th century

Prayer in the desert and a fiery ascent to heaven

The theological and liturgical significance of the cycle of Saint Elijah is based on a very complex prefiguration of the life of Christ, as well as on several theophanies developed on several levels. The essential depiction, at the same time the most appreciated by Orthodox apologists and exegetes, is the prophet Elijah in the desert. It has a double theophanic meaning, because it reminds of the original Theophany of Moses, but also of the apotheosis of loneliness which achieves the closest contact with God.

Later, this iconography was changed and a new meaning was added to it. According to the Scriptures, during his solitude in the wilderness, the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens, bringing him bread and meat (1 Kings 17: 6). In the Byzantine iconography of the Komnenos dynasty, only one raven is shown bringing bread without meat, which emphasizes the Eucharistic meaning of the act.

According to the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a philosopher, Greek-Hebrew exegete and contemporary of Christ, bread is a spiritual food. He based this explanation on Yahweh’s law of Deuteronomy (Deut. 8: 3). As for the raven, it is, in the ancient beliefs of many peoples, a positive sign. In Japan, the raven is God’s messenger, in China it is a sign of the establishment of a social order, in Greek and Celtic legends it has a prophetic ministry, and in Scandinavian mythology, the raven represents the principle of creation. The raven is also a symbol of voluntary solitude and a symbol of hope. We owe the negative aspect of the raven to the influence of romanticism from the beginning of the 19th century.

Another important account of the prophet Elijah is his ascension into heaven. This theme already exists in Dura Europos, in the art of catacombs as well as on sarcophagi. The depiction of the prophet Elijah going to heaven in a chariot of fire drawn by winged horses is borrowed from Greek mythology and late ancient theater. This scene has been known since Euripides’ drama “Electra” and it mainly symbolizes the apotheosis of the hero.

This play also indicates the origin of the identification, among the Slavs, of the prophet Elijah with Perun, the lord of thunder and fire. For the same reasons, in Voltaire’s “Philosophical Dictionary,” Elijah was identified with Helios, the Greek god of the sun. Chariots, in most mythologies, symbolize cosmic and psychological strength, immortality and spirituality. According to Dionysius the Areopagite, chariots represent “a harmonious equality that unites spirits of the same order.”

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The fiery departure of the prophet Elijah to heaven with scenes from life, icons, Crete, Greece, Theodore Pulakis, end of the 17th century

The prophet Elijah as a prefiguration of Christ

All these symbols represent arguments in praise of the Lord. The prophet Elijah, the God-seeker, became a good means for apologists to establish the coincidence of the New and Old Testaments through numerous prefigurations: Elijah in the desert (1 Kings 19: 4) answers Christ’s prayer on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:39); the multiplication of the loaves in Zarephath (1 Kings 17: 11-16) corresponds to Christ’s multiplication of the loaves (John 6: 5-14); the raising of the boys from the dead in Zarephath (1 Kings 17: 16-22) corresponds to the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11: 39-44); the ascension of Elijah to heaven (2 Kings 2: 9-11) corresponds to the ascension of Christ (Matt. 28: 1-6); the descent of fire on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18: 37-38) corresponds to the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles (Acts 2: 1-41).

In the West, the cult of the prophet Elijah was strengthened with the teachings of the Carmelites, a Roman Catholic monastic order founded in Palestine in the 12th century and arrived in Europe (France) in the early 13th century. In the East, Elijah’s cult and iconography developed until the 12th century, starting from completely hagiographic representations to typological iconography, the peculiarities of Komnenian art. We know that the cult of Saint Elijah developed early in Russia, but its iconography did not reach its peak until 15/16. century.

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Saint Elijah in the desert with scenes from life, icon, Russia, 19th century

Sometimes the artistic depiction of Saint Elijah is enhanced by the Old Testament words written on the scroll in his hand: “Lord, you are the God of Israel” (1 Kings 18:36). In fact, this inscription is an illustration of the prophet’s name. In Hebrew, Elijah means “Yahweh is God.”

The prophet Elijah is among the most important figures of Orthodox Christianity and his fiery ascension to heaven is one of the Great Feasts. Such a part is indicated only to Saint Elijah and Saint John the Forerunner, because they represent a special connection between the Old and New Testaments. Elijah’s life presupposed the earthly life of Christ, while the words of John the Baptist announced it.


Source: Balkan Magazin – Aktuelnosti by www.balkanmagazin.net.

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