Elijah Increases the Oil of the Widow | Art for Epiphany 4C

Luke 4:25-26 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

Elijah Increases the Oil of the Widow
Elijah Increases the Oil of the Widow
Pewter-lead alloy, height 173 cm (without socle)
Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna
(b. 1736, Wiesensteig, d. 1783, Bratislava
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Elijah Increases the Oil of the Widow, Pewter, 1769-70, Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, 1736-1783

The title of Franz Messerschmidt’s, sculpture, “Elijah Increases the Oil of the Widow,” sets up an expectation of the biblical story (1 Kings, 17:7-16). The work only alludes to the story, however, and an occasional reference to it as the “so called Zarephath fountain” is fitting. It is primarily a fountain sculpture of a woman pouring water in the style of figures seen in courtyards and gardens throughout Europe.

The biblical account of Elijah and a poor widow tells of a time of famine. God told Elijah to go to the city of Zarephath to meet the widow. There he saw the widow gathering wood near the gate of the city. She was going to build a fire and use the last of her flour and oil to prepare bread. Then she and her son would have a final meal and it was likely they soon would die. Elijah, a stranger to the widow, asked her for water but then, as she was going to get some for him, he also asked for a piece of bread. She hesitated but Elijah promised that if she prepared bread for him she would never run out of oil and flour. The widow had faith and fed Elijah; thereafter provisions were miraculously provided for her.

Franz Messerschmidt, an Austrian, established a successful career sculpting busts of dignitaries in a fashionable baroque manner but in 1765 his studies in Rome brought him in direct contact with classical art. His visit to Italy coincided with a time when there was great interest in the excavations at Herculaneum, a Roman city covered and preserved by the ashes of Vesuvius. Upon his return to Austria, he completed several full-sized figures that were influenced clearly by classicism. Among these commissions was a courtyard fountain sculpture for a palace in Vienna. In its typical Roman niche setting, Elijah and the widow’s son are nowhere to be seen. The widow’s stance, clothing, hair style and the amphora from which she is pouring water are all from Greek and Roman sources. At the widow’s feet, Messerschmidt places two cherubs to do God’s work. One is lifting a food storage urn to the widow and another has his arms around an urn ready to offer it as well. The offering of storage urns by cherubs informs us that ongoing provisions from God are being supplied to the widow.


In the eighteenth century, one of the metals alloyed with tin to make pewter was lead. Messerschmidt used pewter and as he became older he began exhibiting peculiar behavior; it is very likely this was due to lead poisoning.

In Christian art, plump rosy-cheeked cherubs were the counterparts to small Roman cupids. In appearance, cherubs often were not discernable from cupids and they were used in a similar manner. By the seventeenth century the question of whether a figure in art was a sacred cherub or a secular cupid depended on the theme of the work. As cupids, they were agents of secular love and as cherubs they represented the omnipresence of God.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

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