The Dream of Elijah (oil on canvas, 1650-55) by Champaigne, Philippe de (1602-74)
The Flemish born Philippe de Champaigne achieved success as an artist at the French court. The Queen Mother Marie de Medici and Cardinal Richelieu numbered among his powerful patrons. The artist’s reputation rests on his portraits and religious paintings like this oil on canvas of The Dream of Elijah. The artist locates Elijah the Old Testament prophet in a serene landscape. The episode portrayed recalls Elijah’s flight into the desert, in order to escape the wrathful punishment of the prophet’s enemy, Queen Jezebel. As he sleeps, exhausted by his journey and ready to die, an angel appears to him twice. In this finely balanced composition, Phillipe de Champaigne’s classically-inspired angel, elegantly rises above Elijah sprawled across the ground. Light that appears to fall from above highlights the angel’s commanding gestures. The angel’s arms extend out in several directions over Elijah’s motionless figure. On our right we note the bread and carafe of wine, which rest beside Elijah’s head. The angel’s emphatic gesture highlights the life-giving food and drink. The placement of these symbolically-charged objects reminds the viewer and us of the miracle of bread and wine in the Eucharist. Expressive visual devices like the eye-catching pink drapery lead the viewer’s eye from the Eucharistic symbols at right. Our gaze finally rests on the heavenly messenger’s eloquent commanding finger pointed towards the distant image of Mt Horeb. Here on this “mount of God” we know from scripture how Elijah fortified in food and wine will rest for 40 days and nights. Contemporary viewers, familiar with the convention of “speaking gestures” (familiar to them from sermons and theatrical performances) must have admired the artist’s classically-inspired deployment of such visual devices.
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