This extremely powerful and well-preserved painting, which was unknown until 2007 when it appeared at auction, is a prime example of Ferdinand Bol’s early biblical representations. Executed soon after his apprenticeship with Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Angel Appearing to Elijah is boldly executed with a tonal color scheme that lends the composition great unity.
The painting depicts an episode from the Old Testament (I Kings 16:29–34 and chapters 17–19). In this complex and rather gory story, Ahab, the king of Israel (reigned ca. 874–53 BC), and his wife, Jezebel, reject the God of the Israelites and build an altar for the worshippers of Baal. The prophet Elijah then challenges the priests of Baal to set up a sacrificial altar to rival his own. When only Elijah’s sacrifice is consumed by fire, the people reject the false god, Baal, and turn again to the God of the Israelites. At Elijah’s instigation, the people then seize the prophets of Baal, and Elijah kills them. After Jezebel subsequently threatens to kill Elijah, the prophet flees into the wilderness where he sits under a juniper tree and prays for death before falling asleep. The moment that Bol depicts is when an angel comes to Elijah and says: “Arise and eat.” Elijah eats and drinks, but then he falls asleep again, whereupon the angel returns and exhorts him once more to get up and eat. Thus fortified, Elijah “went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.”
In Bol’s painting the figures loom large in the picture plane. Elijah, lying under a tree, supports his head with his right hand and rests his left arm on the ground. In his lap is the end of the belt tied around his waist, a motif often seen in portrayals of biblical figures by, among others, Pieter Lastman (1583–1633) and Rembrandt.1 Behind Elijah hangs a gourd, while leaves and flowers fill the right foreground. The approaching angel looks at Elijah with slightly raised eyebrows as he prepares to waken the prophet with his raised left hand and provide him with water from the flask hanging from his right hand. Light falling onto Elijah’s face and hands and onto the hair of the angel lends plasticity to their forms and anchors them firmly in the darkened landscape surrounding them.
The painting likely dates around 1642, as Sumowski has proposed. He rightly compared this work to Bol’s Jacob’s Dream in Dresden, which also depicts an angel appearing with a sleeping figure (fig 1).2 Bol gained his fascination with Old Testament scenes that stressed God’s spiritual guidance in the interactions of a young, golden-haired angel in a white, flowing robe with an aged bearded patriarch from Rembrandt, particularly from the master’s compelling Sacrifice of Isaac.3 Bol made other paintings depicting an angel and a biblical figure in the early 1640s that are similar in composition, including Gideon and the Angel of 1640/414 and Hagar and the Angel, ca. 1650.5 The free and confident brushwork of the Leiden Collection painting, as well as its large-scale figures, also relate to Bol’s Judah and Tamar of 1644 in Boston (fig 2)6 and his David’s Dying Charge to Solomon in Dublin, 1643.7
The Frits Lugt Collection, Fondation Custodia, in Paris has a preliminary drawing of this composition depicting Elijah (fig 3). The sheet was previously ascribed to Rembrandt,8 but Martin Royalton-Kisch called that attribution into question in 1992.9 Schatborn subsequently assigned the drawing to Bol, noting that Elijah’s pose and clothing correspond to those in the painting.10 At the lower left of the drawing is a partial left hand that could be that of the angel, even though in the painting it appears in a different position.
Lugt, who believed that Rembrandt executed the drawing, dated it to ca. 1635, and Otto Benesch, who concurred with that attribution, dated it to ca. 1638.11 Nevertheless, a date to the early 1640s is appropriate for Bol, for he continued to make rather sketchy, Rembrandtesque drawings after he left the master’s workshop, particularly when they were preliminary studies for subject paintings.12 Indeed, a passage from Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Introduction to the High School of the Art of Painting, 1678, reveals that Rembrandt’s pupils were expected to work for a long time in the master’s style. Hoogstraten, who had studied with Rembrandt in the 1640s, wrote: “You pupils must obey your master, and entrust your education to him. He who wishes to learn from his master’s lips must follow him without question, until such time as he properly and correctly understands what has been taught.” He goes on to say, “Therefore I should rather impose five years of silence on pupils and recommend constructive obedience . . . so that they first learn thoroughly to apply what is recommended to them.”13 Elijah Resting under a Tree corresponds in several respects to other Rembrandtesque drawings Bol made at this time, such as David on His Deathbed in Besançon,14 a preparatory drawing for the above mentioned David’s Dying Charge to Solomon in Dublin, 1643, and the drawing of Two Marys in Kraków,15 which is probably a study for The Three Marys at the Tomb, 1644, now in Copenhagen.16
Elijah is often seen as a prefiguration of Christ, which may explain why this subject appealed to Dutch patrons.17 Just who these patrons may have been is an intriguing question since in the seventeenth century there was practically no difference in the way the various religious denominations viewed the iconography of different biblical themes. Apart from portrait commissions and works ordered by civic authorities, such as those made for the Amsterdam Town Hall, little is known about the patrons who commissioned biblical scenes.18 Manuth, however, has posited that the theme of Elijah, owing to his prophecies and his role as a harbinger of the Messiah, was of particular importance in the Jewish faith.19 Elijah was considered the protector of the oppressed and persecuted people of Israel. The inventories of art in the collections of Jewish burghers in the seventeenth century also reveal a preference for subjects that include Elijah.20
Around 1650 Bol painted another depiction of the angel appearing to Elijah, which differs from the present work in the way light falls on the figures, and in the detailed depiction of the foliage.21 The only other Rembrandt pupil to paint this subject was Govaert Flinck (1615–60), who did so in the early 1640s, although the lack of specific dates make it impossible to know which artist depicted the subject first.22 Interestingly, the theme of Elijah and the Angel does not occur in Rembrandt’s painted and etched oeuvre, and he only turned to it in a drawing of the early 1650s (Frits Lugt Collection, Fondation Custodia, Paris).23 Several drawings that Sumowski assigned to Bol portray the same subject, but their attribution to Bol seems uncertain, even though they fit stylistically into the artist’s circle.24 Moreover, Cornelis Bisschop (1630–74), one of Bol’s pupils, made a painting25 and a drawing 26 inspired by his teacher’s work, thereby testifying to this painting’s importance as a model for artists in Bol’s orbit.
The painting was apparently once in the collection of the Elector Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria (1662–1726), a provenance history that was handed down by word of mouth in the family of Count Johann Franz Ignaz Seyboltsdorff (1673–1711). It is said that Maximilian gave the painting to the count in gratitude for the count’s political support. This provenance is quite plausible considering that Maximilian collected paintings, particularly while serving as regent of the Southern Netherlands (1692–1701).27 In 1698 he acquired 101 paintings from the Antwerp collector Gisbert van Colen that are now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and the Staatsgalerie Schleissheim. There is no surviving inventory made before Maximilian’s death, however, that confirms the provenance of Elijah and the Angel from his collection.28 In any event, the painting remained with the count’s descendants until 1945.