Finding Rest in Righteousness: ‘Elijah in the Wilderness’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
September 19, 2020 Updated: September 21, 2020

We are sometimes left physically, mentally, and yes, spiritually fatigued. We have jobs, families, studies, interests, and so on. It’s easy to often feel exhausted.

But artworks like “Elijah in the Wilderness” by Frederic Leighton (18301896), completed in 1878, may leave us with wisdom on how to feel refreshed despite our busy lifestyles. 

Elijah in the Wilderness

Elijah was a Hebrew prophet who confronted King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in their worship of Baal. Elijah warned the royals that their worship would lead to a drought in their land. Of course, the king and queen ignored Elijah’s warning, and there was indeed a drought.

Soon bread was worth more than its weight in gold, and water was even more scarce. People experienced great suffering.

Elijah returned to the king and queen and challenged their priests to produce sacrificial fire through prayer. The priests of Baal tried and tried but were unable to produce fire. Elijah prayed to God, and God delivered fire for all to see. The people were convinced by Elijah and executed the false prophets of Baal.

Queen Jezebel was angered that her priests were executed and vowed to do the same to Elijah. But the prophet fled to the wilderness to escape the queen’s wrath.

Elijah was disappointed and depressed in the wilderness. He was tired, hungry, and thirsty. He fell asleep, and in his sleep, an angel touched him and told him to eat and drink. Elijah woke up and found water and cake next to him, which he ate. 

Elijah fell asleep again, and again the angel came to him and told him to eat and drink again to prepare for the long journey ahead. Elijah did as he was told and prepared for the rest of his journey.

Frederick_Leighton-_Elijah_in_the_Wilderness
“Elijah in the Wilderness,” 1878, by Frederic Leighton. Oil on canvas, 92.2 inches by 82.8 inches. Walker Art Gallery, England. (Public Domain)

Sir Frederic Leighton and Elijah’s Guardian Angel

Sir Frederic Leighton was a British academic painter who was very popular during the 19th century. He was president of the Royal Academy, was knighted, and was the first English painter to be made a baron.

In “Elijah in the Wilderness,” Leighton expertly composed warm, muted colors into a twilight-like scene. 

The angel is our focal point; the halo possesses the most intense yellow in the composition, an intensity that contrasts with the darker values on the face of the angel. Leighton also used a complementary color scheme to make the angel stand out a little more than the other elements, especially in the wings where muted yellows, oranges, and reds complement soft blues and violets.

The angel looks caringly at Elijah and places the water and cake next to his sleeping body. Elijah’s body makes a sweeping curve from the middle of the right side of the composition to the middle of the bottom of the composition. 

Elijah is painted in muted oranges, the color often used to represent all flesh tones. The orange of his flesh doesn’t contrast much with the warmer, brown cloth on which he rests, but does contrast with the blue of the sky where his head reclines and his elbow points to the heavens.

Leighton produced a warm and calm painting. The use of complementary colors can have a jarring effect when they are used at full intensity, but Leighton opted to mute them, even bringing some of the blues, purples, and oranges close to gray. His use of muted, warm tones helps us experience a scene of tranquil warmth.

Resting in Righteousness

How beautiful a moment when this angel comes to Elijah in all of his exhaustion. This painting, with its warmth and sense of safety, made me consider the importance of rest. Not just any rest, however, but a type of rest found in selflessness.

I know quite a few people who rest a lot. They spend a lot of their time relaxing at home, complaining about the world around them. They do little but are restless. It is not any rest that will bring us the tranquility we desperately need.

The angel doesn’t appear to just anyone. The angel appears to Elijah and helps Elijah. Why Elijah? Is it because his heart and mind are focused on righteousness above all else? Is this why his elbow points to the heavens and his head faces the heavens with the sky as its background? 

Is Leighton telling us that only with our minds focused on the heavens will we be helped by angels and experience the tranquility and sense of safety that come with thoughts of selfless righteousness?

Maybe we’re searching for rest in all of the wrong places, and maybe we won’t find rest until our hearts and minds are in the right place.

 Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist.