Elijah in the Wilderness,
Painted by Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896),
Painted in 1877-1878,
Oil on canvas
© Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Elijah in the Wilderness,
Painted by Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896),
Painted in 1877-1878,
Oil on canvas
© Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Gospel of 11 December 2021

I tell you that Elijah has come already

Matthew 17:10-13

As they came down from the mountain the disciples put this question to Jesus, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah has to come first?’ ‘True;’ he replied ‘Elijah is to come to see that everything is once more as it should be; however,I tell you that Elijah has come already and they did not recognise him but treated him as they pleased; and the Son of Man will suffer similarly at their hands.’ The disciples understood then that he had been speaking of John the Baptist.

Reflection on the Painting

Our painting is by Sir Frederic Leighton. At the start of his career, at the age of 25, one of his pictures, exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, was bought by Queen Victoria. This propelled his career. In 1878, the year our picture was painted, Leighton was elected President of the Royal Academy in London and he was knighted in the same year. In our canvas we see the prophet Elijah fleeing from his great enemy Queen Jezebel, who has vowed to have him killed. Here, we see Elijah after falling asleep in the wilderness having asked for death. The angel however, brings him bread and water, gently placing them on the rock.

The story of Elijah and Jezebel is a subject matter favoured by artists, as it gives scope for so many dramatic possibilities in terms of composition. Our version by Leighton is particularly striking. The contrast between the strongly muscled body of Elijah and the tender, slim, upright figure of the angel is powerful. The restrained colours give the whole painting a touch of serenity and peace. The composition is a powerful depiction of a turning point in Elijah’s life.

When reading today’s short Gospel passage, we have to remember that it follows on immediately after the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, during which the disciples saw Moses and Elijah standing next to the transfigured Jesus on the mountain. So as the disciples come down from the mountain with Jesus, they are asking Him questions. By the time Jesus speaks today’s words, St John the Baptist has already been executed. Jesus tells the disciples that he will share the same fate and be killed. But looking at this Gospel reading in the context of Advent, we are reminded that the little baby born in the stable will be crucified. The wood of the manger foretells the wood of the cross. Today’s reading is a reality check: that whilst we live expectantly towards Christmas, we must never lose sight of the ultimate reason why Jesus came into this world: to lay down His life for us.

Just as Elijah and St John the Baptist paved the way for the coming of the Messiah, so does Christmas already foretell the sacrifice of Jesus. Maybe that is why the figure of Elijah in our painting is almost already modelled as a pietà…

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