Eastern Europe, Russia, ca. late 19th century CE. Finely rendered in egg tempera, gold leaf, and gesso on wood, a breathtaking icon honoring the Prophet Elijah who, as depicted in the central panel, rides into heaven on a chariot drawn by celestial horses under the fearful watch of his disciple Elisha (Eliseus). Other vignettes of the central panel include: Elijah sitting in a desert cave after predicting a famine as a crow approaches to feed him; the angel appearing to Elijah later on, after he won the challenge against the priests of Baal in the king's court and fled to the desert once again, and Elijah separating the waters of the Jordan River. In the sixteen bordering images are pictorial accounts of Elijah's story in concordance with I Kings 17-19. The six slender panels to the left and right of the central image depict saints (left from top to bottom are Basil, John the Warrior, and Sergei of Radonezh; right includes St. Mark, St. Stephen, and Natalia). Many calligraphic passages narrate the scenes. Size: 14.75" W x 17.75" H (37.5 cm x 45.1 cm).
In Russia, according to scholar Alfredo Tradigo, Elijah replaced Perun, the Slavic deity of thunder, who also rode into heaven on a chariot of fire drawn by otherworldly horses. During the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, in the decade between 860 and 850 BCE, Elijah told his prophesies. Following his prediction of a famine, Elijah took refuge in a desert cave. There, a crow fed him, by order of the Lord, bread in the morning (visible in his left hand) and meat at night (shown being delivered by the crow to Elijah's upraised right hand). He then returned to the king's court and won a challenge putting 400 priests of Baal to the sword. Following this, he fled to the desert and prayed for death. However, an angel appeared and brought him food. The bread he ate strengthened him (Church Fathers interpreted this as a prefiguration of the Eucharist) and he walked for forty days until reaching Horeb, god's mountain. Here, he miraculously found God, "not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in a 'small voice.'" (Alfredo Tradigo, "Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church," J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2006, p. 81.)
Icons were some of the first religious artworks brought to Russia from Byzantium. These sacred pictures reached a high point in the Byzantine era, however, the Russians brought their own style to the art of the icon. Icons were initially created for use in churches and processions. In time they became smaller and were used increasingly within households. To this day they remain an important form of visual culture in Russia's orthodox religious community.
Icons (icon means "image" in Greek) are sacred objects within the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. Found in homes as well as churches, these painted images depict holy persons and saints as well as illustrate scenes from the Scriptures. Icons are not worshiped, but are instead venerated for their ability to focus the power of an individual's prayer to God. As such they are truly "windows into heaven."
Provenance: private Francis & Lilly Robicsek collection, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
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