Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chariots of Fire

Michelangelo, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Italian, 1511
Vatican City, Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel Ceiling
No, this article is not about the 1981 film about the 1924 British Olympic team. It’s about the Biblical event from which the film derived its name – the taking up into Heaven of the prophet Elijah, which is the first reading for today’s Masses.1

“As they walked on conversing,
a flaming chariot and flaming horses came between them,
and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
When Elisha saw it happen he cried out,
"My father! my father! Israel's chariots and drivers!"
But when he could no longer see him,
Elisha gripped his own garment and tore it in two.

Then he picked up Elijah's mantle that had fallen from him,
and went back and stood at the bank of the Jordan.”

(2 Kings 2:11-13) 
Excerpt from the First Reading for June 20, 2012

The dramatic event of the taking up of Elijah in the fiery chariot has a long history in Western art.

While not necessarily the most popular of images associated with Elijah (other scenes from his life, such as the miracle he performed for the starving widow, received more frequent representation) it is, nonetheless, very frequent.
Giotto, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Italian, 1304
Padua. Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

Like the translation of the patriarch, Enoch, who “walked with God, and he was no longer here, for God took him” (Genesis 5:21-24), it was seen as one of the prefigurations (or types) of the Ascension of Jesus. In the usual tripartite arrangement of “Before the Law, Under Grace and Under the Law" (for example on the 12th century Klosterneuburg Altarpiece by Nicholas of Verdun or in the later medieval Biblia pauperum (see below) the Taking up of Elijah (Under the Law) is presented with the Translation of Enoch (Before the Law) and the Ascension of Jesus (Under Grace).
Nicholas of Verdun, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
From the Klosterneuburg Altar
Mosan, 1181
Klosterneuburg Abbey (Austria)

Master of the Hours of Margaret of Cleves
Translation of Enoch, Ascension of Jesus, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
From Biblia pauperum
Northern Netherlands, ca. 1405
London, British Library, King's 5, fol. 26
It was also a relatively common subject in the illustration of glossed vernacular Bibles, such as that by the 13th century canon, Guiard des Moulins, from Aire-sur-la-Lys in Picardy, whose work became one of the most frequently copied lay volumes in the later middle ages.

From Bible historiale by Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), c. 1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 155, fol. 87

From Bible historiale of Guiard des Moulins
French (Paris), ca. 1415
New York, Morgan Library
MS M.034, fol. 159r
Jean Colombe
From Hours of Anne of France
French (Bourges), ca. 1473
New York, Morgan Library
MS M.677, fol. 311r
It is interesting that here the two prophets wear the habit of the Carmelite order.  The Carmelites claim 
a spiritual ancestry from the Old Testament prophets.

With the advent of the Renaissance the subject became less frequent, replaced by other episodes from the life of Elijah. However, it continued on well into the 20th century, often for the decoration of church ceilings and domes.
Jobst Dorndorf, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
German, 1544-1546
Pirna, Evangelical parish church of St. Marien
Juan de Valdes Leal, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Spanish, ca. 1658
Cordoba, Shod Carmelite monastery
Anonymous, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Austrian, 1701-1715
Lambach, Benedictine Abbey

Marc Chagall, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot
Russian, 1970
Nice, Chagall Museum

The image of the chariot ascending to heaven has an even longer history than these medieval images. For, they are based on an earlier prototype, the chariot of the sun god (the Greek Helios or the Roman Apollo). In pagan mythology the sun god drove a fiery chariot with fiery horses through the sky from east to west, accounting for the movement of the sun through the sky.
Red figure kalyx-crater
Greek (Attic), ca.430 BC
London, British Museum
Add caption
Helios, Relief from temple of Athena at Troy
Hellenistic, 300-280 BC
Berlin, Pergamon Museum

Clearly the Christian artists had seen remnants of this imagery in originating their own image for Elijah.

© M. Duffy, 2012
1.It was not the direct Biblical image of the fiery chariot ride of Elijah that inspired the title of the 1981 Olympic film. It was the poem by William Blake, later set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, from which the title came. Blake’s poem, part of the preface to his long poem “Milton a Poem” of 1808-1810, is the actual source. However, the source of Blake’s line “Bring me my chariot of fire” is a reference to the story of Elijah.  Below is a clip of the ending of the film "Chariots of Fire" in which, at the memorial service for Harold Abrahams in St. Paul's Cathedral, the choir sings the hymn "Jerusalem", which is the Parry setting for the Blake poem.  The chariots reference comes from the second verse of the hymn, which says:

"Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!"

(Full text at

© M. Duffy 2012

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