Sunday, June 19, 2016

2 Kings 2.1-14: Fire. Sun. A Question of Time.

Elijah and his stylish vehicular departure would capture the imagination of just about anyone. Who wouldn't want to be carried away from earth in a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire? (2 Kings 2:1-14; Proper 8C/Ordinary 13C).

Russian artist Marc Chagall depicted the usual elements of the story in his 1971 mosaic now at the Musee Marc Chagall, Nice, France. The prophet rides in his fiery chariot, hands outstretched (or raised, perhaps). He centers the composition of this large, outdoor mosaic. Surrounding Elijah the artist has placed a circular arrangement of the signs of the zodiac. The internet says (so it must be true), that the signs of the zodiac are used to symbolize time.

Arranged as they are in the wheel of a year, the astrological signs seem to reinforce the cyclical nature of time, of the turning of the seasons and the changing of the year. Symbols of the zodiac are often found on the exterior of Gothic cathedrals, usually in association with the labors of the months.

It is not especially unusual to find the signs of the zodiac as decorations in synagogues from certain eras. Symbols for each of the twelve signs are arranged in a circle around a central figure. In the example below, from the Bet Alfa synagogue (5th century), Cancer is at the top of the circle, and each zodiacal sign is identified in Hebrew letters. Other examples are found at Tzippori and Hamat Tiberias. There doesn't seem to be a consistent arrangement for the signs, but in each of the synagogue examples, the central image is a figure in a horse-drawn chariot.

It is not, however, Chagall's prophet Elijah. Instead we see Helios, the personification of the sun in the Greek pantheon. Helios drives a horse-drawn chariot across the sky every day. With Helios as the central figure, the compositional idea of symbolizing time makes sense. Twelve signs of the zodiac encompass the year, and Helios covers the sun's journey through a day.What, though, has Elijah to contribute to an arrangement of the zodiac signs symbolizing time?

Both Elijah and Helios ride in chariots. Both chariots are pulled by horses. Both chariots and riders take their journey through the sky rather than on earth. The sun is made of fire. There are certainly similarities between the Helios and Elijah. Is that what gave rise to the substitution? Or do you think Chagall had another intention in replacing Helios with Elijah?

Syncretism is the fusion of different thoughts, cultures, religions into one. It sometimes happens like this, "Look! Your religion has a person riding in a chariot in the does ours! We're the same!" Or, more famously, "Look! You have the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (the Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invictus)...we have an unconquered Son, too! His birthday is also December 25!" What is gained...and what is lost...when surface similarities are used to create unity?

(Top) Marc Chagall, Elijah in the Fiery Chariot. Mosaic. Russian, 1970. Nice, Chagall Museum. For the Musee National Marc Chagall, see: (Bottom) Mosaic pavement (Zodiac and Helios). 6th century. Bet Alfa Synagogue, Jezreel Valley, Israel. For Beit Alfa Synagogue, see:

For thoughts on Luke 9:51-62, click here.

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