Cornelis van Poelenburch was an important representative of the first generation of Dutch artists who drew inspiration from the landscape and culture of Italy. He is celebrated for his small-scale paintings of arcadian, biblical, or mythological subjects that featured figures in an Italianate landscape, often with Roman ruins. This work was painted in Utrecht, after the artist had spent nearly a decade in Italy, and although the landscape setting here is imaginary, the ruin on the left is based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum, built in 495 BC.

The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath illustrates the biblical story of the encounter between prophet Elijah and a widow and her son gathering sticks when he arrives at the town of Zarephath. Elijah asks her for a piece of bread, and the destitute widow invites him to her home where she uses her last bit of flour and oil to bake for him. The prophet then blesses the woman and her child, and assures them that their supplies of flour and oil will never be diminished. Shortly thereafter the son dies, but because of Elijah’s fervent prayers, God returned the boy to life. The story was often interpreted as an Old Testament prefiguration of the passion and sacrifice of Christ. The son, who clutches a bundle of firewood, pre-shadowed Christ carrying the cross, and because he was later brought back from the dead, he was seen as a prefiguration of the resurrected Christ.


  • Title: The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath
  • Creator: Cornelis van Poelenburch
  • Date Created: c. 1630
  • Physical Dimensions: overall: 35.6 x 47 cm (14 x 18 1/2 in.) framed: 51.1 x 62.1 x 5.1 cm (20 1/8 x 24 7/16 x 2 in.)
  • Provenance: Cottin collection; (his sale, by Pierre Remy and Sieur Helle, Paris, 27 November-22 December 1752, 1st day, no. 382);[1] purchased by Le Brun. (sale, Sotheby's, London, 21 February 1962, no. 66); (Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London); sold 29 May 1963 to Joseph F. McCrindle [1923-2008], New York;[2] gift 2004 to NGA. [1] The painting was sold as a pendant to Poelenburch’s “Abraham conduissant son Fil Isaac au lieu du Sacrifice, 12 pounces de haut sur 15 1/2 de large.” On the verso of the panel are some unidentified wax seals. [2] Also on the verso is an Agnew’s label with the number 24022 stenciled on it. Venetia Harlow, Agnew’s archivist, confirmed in an e-mail of 21 December 2009 to Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. (in NGA curatorial files) that this label number corresponded to Agnew’s stock number 3792, and provided the details of their acquisition and sale of the painting.
  • Medium: oil on panel

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