Elijah and the Priests of Baal, Oil on Wood, 1545, Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1515-1886
German artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder was known as one of the foremost painters and printmakers of the Northern Renaissance. For much of his life he worked for the Electors of Saxony and was an avid supporter of the Protestant Reformation. His son, Lucas Cranach the Younger, apprenticed with his father and often worked on paintings in the studio with him. At the death of his father, he took over as supervisor of the art workshop. Both Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger were friends of Martin Luther and each painted several portraits of him.
Lucas Cranach the Younger’s “Elijah and the Priests of Baal” depicts the result of a long conflict between the Prophet Elijah and King Ahab. When the king married the Phoenician princess, Jezebel, she brought the worship of the idol Baal with her. She convinced Ahab to allow the worship of Baal in Israel and had Jewish prophets put to death. Elijah left Israel and upon his return saw that conditions had become impossible; he demanded a showdown. He told King Ahab to take the people of Israel and the priests of Baal to Mount Carmel. When they were together he told the people their faith could not be divided; they couldn’t have it both ways. He said, “If the LORD is God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him.” Elijah then proposed a test. Two altars would be built; firewood and a bull as a sacrifice would be placed on each one. Then each would pray for fire to burn the wood and offer the sacrifice. The priests of Baal built their altar and prayed fervently until after midday but their efforts were futile. When it was Elijah’s turn, firewood and the bull to be sacrificed were placed on the altar. For good measure, he dug a trench around its base and asked that four jars of water to be poured over the wood. He asked the same amount to be poured on it twice more causing the wood to be well drenched. As he prayed, fire from above came down dramatically and consumed everything. The water-soaked wood, the sacrificial offering, the stones, and even the water in the trench were engulfed in flames. When the people saw this, they fell down and said, “The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God.”
The painting, “Elijah and the Priests of Baal,” is crowded densely with people who are there to witness the resolution of this conflict. The altar built by Elijah is on the left side in the foreground and a dark cloud has gathered at the top center of the painting. Pellets of fire from the cloud are sending intense heat to the altar and even the water at the base of the altar is touched by the flame. Elijah is standing to the right of the altar with his arms raised in prayer and in the lower left corner are Elijah’s assistants with their empty water vessels. The altar of Baal is on the right and its wood and sacrifice remain untouched but the persistent priests of Baal are continuing to dance and pray even as the altar built by Elijah is consumed in flames. The crowd on the left is in awe, as is King Ahab who is standing between the altars and looking at the miraculous fire.
Hovak Najarian © 2013