Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

Icons Of Hebrew Prophets And Heroes

The Hebrew Prophets And Heroes

In The Orthodox Christian churches, an entire row of icons of the prophets typically graces the iconostasis or icon screen. Each prophets is depicted holding a scroll on which his words are inscribed.

The Hebrew prophets, especially Elijah and Moses, are held in very high esteem for their leadership and vision, for their courageous actions, and for keeping the word of God alive under difficult circumstances. They are considered to have foreseen the coming of Christ.

Hebrew scriptures tell of many other heroes and heroines who advanced the welfare of their people and the recognition of their God. Their stories have enriched our art and literature, and continue to stimulate our imaginations.

The Prophet Elijah In The Wilderness, Fed By A Raven

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted panel, 11 x 14 inches, 2002
Based on an icon in the Byzantine Museum, Athens
Photograph by David Elliott

Early in his career, Elijah angered the king with an unfavorable prophecy (1 Kings 17, 1-7). God directed him to withdraw to the wilderness, where the ravens would feed him. Here he sits discouraged and isolated, in front of his cave in a rocky landscape. We follow his surprise when a raven, normally a scavenger, actually brings food for him.

The words of the border come from Psalm 62.

The Prophet Elijah Is Carried To Heaven In A Chariot Of Fire!

Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel, 13 x 17 inches, 2007
Photograph by Richard Anderson

The prophet Elijah did not die, but was carried to heaven by a whirlwind, in a chariot of fire! (2 Kings 2: 1-14) Elijah has traditionally been expected to re-appear at the end of time.

We see Elijah ascending in a great red circle of flame. His disciple Elisha holds onto Elijah’s cloak as it falls from him, bringing with it Elijah’s prophetic power. They have just crossed the Jordan River, shown in the right foreground.

In the left foreground we see an earlier event; an angel bringing food and encouragement to the depressed Elijah.

THE PROPHET AMOS; "Let justice roll down like waters."

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2005
Photograph by Richard Anderson

Amos was not a professional prophet, but a shepherd who also tended sycamore trees. But he was a visionary, called to prophesy justice to the corrupt rulers of Israel – a message which they did not welcome. He stands as an example of courage and of the will to justice.

In each corner of this icon is the leaf of a California sycamore, a common street tree in the San Francisco Bay Area.

QUEEN ESTHER; "Grant me my soul and my people."

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board, 9.5 x 12.5 inches, 2002

When Queen Vashti stood up to her husband, the powerful pagan king Ahasuhuerus, he divorced her. The teen-aged Esther was selected as replacement queen - not a very secure position. The king did not know that Esther was a Hebrew. When Ahasuhuerus came under the influence of a scheming courtier who wanted to get rid of the Hebrews, Esther cleverly and courageously managed to persuade the king to change his plans.

Esther, who saved her people from destruction, is celebrated in her own book of the Bible, and during Purim, her own Jewish holiday.

The icon at upper right was painted as a gift for a liberal Jewish friend, who selected the words of the inscriptions. Missing it, I painted another, shown at lower left, using the same drawing.

Queen Esther

Egg tempera and gold leaf on shaped panel, 6 x 8.5 inches, 2011
Photograph by Richard Anderson


Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel, 10 x 15 inches, 2008
Photograph by Richard Anderson

The brilliant young Hebrew Daniel and his friends were relocated by a conquering king to Babylon, where they served as administrators and courtiers. Daniel’s ability to interpret the king’s dreams brought him a major promotion, but also attracted the envy of his Babylonian colleagues, who repeatedly and unsuccessfully plotted to have him put to death – usually by taking advantage of Daniel’s unwillingness to bow down to pagan idols.

The Book of Daniel contains dramatic stories of Daniel’s prophetic and political gifts and his narrow escapes, including his miraculous deliverance from death when confined to a den of hungry lions as punishment for refusing to worship an idol.

Still more stories and variants appear in the 3 apocryphal books known as The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews, Susannah, and Bel and the Dragon, which at one time were included in the Book of Daniel.

This icon depicts Daniel’s ordeal as told in the apocryphal book of Bel and the Dragon. The seven fearsome lions are shown affectionately licking Daniel rather than biting him.

After six days, an angel carried the prophet Habakkuk “by his hair, with the speed of the wind” to Babylon with food for Daniel. When the king came to mourn for Daniel the next morning, he found Daniel alive and well, and praised God.

As the primary focus of this icon, Daniel is shown at a larger scale than the other figures.

Vision Of The Prophet Ezekiel

Egg tempera and gold leaf on gessoed panel, 9 x 13 inches, 2013
Photograph by Richard Anderson

In the words of a well-known spiritual, “Ezekiel saw the wheels a- turning, way up in the middle of the air.”

The Prophet Ezekiel was graced with amazing visions, described with such force and poetry that they echo throughout scripture and to the present day. This icon illustrates the first of these visions, described in Ezekiel Chapters 1 and 2. It is based on a medieval manuscript, in which a large initial letter “E” contained an illustration of the vision. Ezekiel slumbers at the bottom of the letter, while a seraph and four living wheels (interpreted as a type of angel) soar above.

Since this vision took place beside a river, I have extended that river into the foreground to highlight some of Ezekiel’s words, and to symbolize the flow of time and tradition that carries his words to us today.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS "God has spoken to his people, Alleluia, and the words are words of wisdom, Alleluia" - a Tabot for Saint Gregory's Church painted in collaboration with Paul Fromberg

Egg tempera and gold leaf on panel, 13 x 13 inches, 2011
Photograph by Richard Anderson

Here are ten straightforward guidelines for a decent, well-lived life; just as good now as in ancient times.

On a group tour of Ethiopia in 2009, I learned that in the Holy of Holies of each Ethiopian Orthodox church there resides a copy of the Ten Commandments, inscribed on wood or stone, known as the Tabot. On important feast days, it is brought out into the congregation and the city, balanced on a padded hat on the head of a priest - where it is greeted with extreme joy and excitement.

Feeling inspired to make a Tabot for our church, I gilded and painted the background, and persuaded Rev. Paul Fromberg to write the inscriptions. The contemporary wording comes from the Book of Common Prayer.

The Prophet Moses before the Burning Bush

Egg tempera and gold leaf on sculpted board,
13 x 16 inches, 2015
photograph by Richard Anderson

THE PROPHET MOSES "Who am I to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"

egg tempera and gold leaf on panel,
5 x 6 inches, 2009
Photograph by Richard Anderson

Moses not only brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he brought us the Ten Commandments.

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