The Prophet Elisha and the Rich Woman of Shunem
Pier Francesco Mola, Italian 1612-1666
SN 139. Oil on Canvas 1648/50

by Robert Anderson.

Pier Francesco Mola was an Italian baroque painter who was active primarily in Rome. His style was characterized by warm coloring and soft modelling, and was formed mainly on the example of Guercino and the Venetian artists. His most characteristic works are fairly small canvases with religious or mythological figures set in landscapes.

Mola finished his training in northern Italy and launched his career 1640. His frescoes at this time show him to be a slow learner who lacked confidence in creating multi-figured dramatic compositions. Subsequent study in Venice and Bologna accounts for an increasingly Venetian influence which can be seen in a number of small cabinet paintings in which the landscape dominates the figures. These landscapes are strongly Venetian, and their idyllic mood suggests the influence of Francesco Albani who wrote of Mola having studied with him.

Among these paintings are the pendants of the Prophet Elijah and the Rich Woman of Shunem and the Prophet Elisha and the Widow of Zarephath.

Elisha was a prophet of Israel and a companion of Elijah. He succeeded Elijah as a religious leader of the Israelites after God took Elijah up to heaven.

The subject of this painting deals with Elisha's dealings with a wealthy woman from the town of Shunem who had given food and shelter to him. When asked what she wanted in return for her kindness she responded that she wanted a child but that her husband was too old to be useful in this regard. Elisha then promised her that he would see to it that she would have a child and some time later she bore a son.

Some years later the son died and the woman again petitioned Elisha - this time to bring her son back to life. Elisha went to her house, prayed for assistance from God and brought the child to life.

The prophet Elisha is seen in a white robe which is highlighted. He is portrayed as an older man with a beard and balding head. The young woman in brown and purple stands facing him while her young son plays with a stick. The face of the young woman is pleasing with pink cheeks. Elisha is shown telling the young woman to leave the area and so escape the coming famine in the land.

The landscape surrounding the figures is dark and somewhat overpowering. What appears to be an evening sky shows a few rays of sun but is somewhat overcast. This dominance of the landscape in the painting over the figures is typical of Mola's paintings.

Historical Context:

Both this painting and its companion, the Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, are closely related to the Carmelite Order. The prophet Elijah is considered the founder of the order since he had lived as a hermit on Mount Carmel. Elisha was included in the Carmelite dynasty of ideal role models.

It is believed that the two paintings were commissioned for the church of St. Martino ai Monti in Milan since their subjects were relevant to 18 frescoes at that location, 12 of which depict scenes from the lives of Elijah and Elisha.