Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Elijah Fed by the Angel, oil on canvas, c.1577-78, Tintoretto, 1518-1594
During the Renaissance, the composition of many paintings seemed staged but on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo did not organize figures in tableau-like fashion. Later, when he painted, “The Last Judgment,” he introduced even greater dynamic movement. Many sixteenth century artists admired this aspect of his work and it was Venetian painter Tintoretto’s stated desire to emulate the drawing ability of Michelangelo. Like Michelangelo, Tintoretto was praised in his lifetime and history also has treated him kindly; today, he continues to be regarded as an artist of the highest rank.
When Tintoretto received the commission to create paintings for the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice (an institute dedicated to charitable work), he was free from the whims of patrons. He was given permission to develop his own themes. On the ceiling of Sala Superiore (the upper room of the Scuola di San Rocco) – referred to occasionally as Tintoretto’s “Sistine” ceiling – he painted thirteen scenes from the Old Testament. The themes are on the subject of thirst, hunger, and disease; Tintoretto’s “Elijah Fed by an Angel” is one of the illustrations showing God’s providence in times of hunger.
Biblical events leading to the time when Elijah was fed by an angel goes back to when the people of Israel along with King Ahab, and the priests of Baal went to Mt. Carmel for a display of God’s power. The priests of Baal and Elijah each built an altar. When the priests prayed for fire to offer a sacrifice, their efforts were in vain but when Elijah prayed, an intense fire engulfed the altar of God. After this demonstration, hundreds of the priests of Baal were put to death and King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, a follower of Baal, became livid. Elijah feared for his life and fled to Beersheba in Judah where he went into the wilderness. He sat under a shrub, prayed, and being exhausted, fell asleep. While asleep, an angel brought bread and water to him. Tintoretto’s painting depicts Elijah lying motionless as he is sleeping in the shade at the edge of the desert. Above him is the angel descending with wings and arms outspread. Elijah was awakened by the angel and he ate the bread; he then fell asleep again. Elijah was awakened once more and told to eat because a long journey awaited him.
A painting is a surface on which pigment has been arranged to create an image. The arts of literature, music, theater, and cinema are like journeys. A duration of time is required to travel, read or listen. It also takes time to fully absorb a painting but its subject can be seen superficially in its entirety at a glance; further study will reveal details and deeper content. Artists have found that similarity (of colors shapes, lines, and textures) forms a very strong visual bond. “Elijah Fed by the Angel,” is unified clearly by similar curvilinear forms. The curves unify the composition and are also related visually to the oval-shaped canvas.
Hovak Najarian © 2013