An Archangel All Along
Seize the Fish and Don’t Let Go
Commentary by Mahnaz Yousefzadeh
Jacopo Ligozzi’s preparatory drawing depicts an episode from chapter 6 of the book of Tobit, ubiquitous in the Florentine visual arts during the late medieval and early modern period (Conigliello 2005: 26–27). Tobit’s son Tobias, guided by the archangel Raphael, catches a fish during a stop at the river Tigris; Tobias is on his way from Nineveh to claim a debt in Media. Renaissance iconography typically depicts a moment just after this episode: Tobias holds a fish while walking next to Raphael through a landscape. The subject lent itself to use in ex-votos commissioned by mercantile families in order to protect a young son on a long-distance commercial journey (Hart 2006: 80–81).
Ligozzi’s drawing offers an unusually intimate close-up of the moment of Tobias’s actual encounter with the miraculous fish. The monstrous creature has attacked and frightened Tobias. Raphael directs him: ‘seize the fish and don’t let go’ (6:3). He further directs Tobias to cut open the fish, and to remove the heart and the gall, as they enjoy healing qualities. The details of this operation are displayed to us in considerable detail.
In this Ligozzi drawing, Tobias’s face turns towards Raphael for guidance and courage, while his hands grab, cut open, and pull at the inside of the fish. Towering above him, Raphael places one hand upon Tobias’s shoulder in a reassuring gesture.
If the popular Florentine iconography of Tobias and the Angel journeying through a landscape concerns safe journeys and prosperous returns, Ligozzi’s close-up of this occasion crystallizes the significance of the encounter with the monstrous fish at the river. It evokes the art of transforming fear into courage, danger into profit, crisis into opportunity: the Machiavellian subduing of Fortuna, the zeitgeist of early modern mercantile culture. Tobias seizes the moment and alters the course of future events.
Raphael’s reassuring gesture and imperative call to seize the fish, foreshadows his later reassuring ‘do not be afraid’ and the command ‘write what you have seen’ in Tobit 12:17.
Achenbach, Gertrude. 1943. ‘The Iconography of Tobias and the Angel in Florentine Paintings of the Renaissance’, Marsyas 3: 71–86
Argenziano, Raffaele. 2015. ‘I compagni di viaggio Tobias e Raffaele: alcune precisazioni sull’iconografia di Raffaele “arcangelo” come protettore e taumaturgo’, Micrologus 23: 463–85
Conigliello, Lucilla. 2005. Ligozzi (Milan: 5 Continents)
Eisenbichler, Konrad. 1998. The Boys of the Archangel Raphael: A Youth Confraternity in Florence, 1411–1785 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press)
Folds Mccullagh, Susan and Laura Gilles. 1997. ‘Jacopo Ligozzi, Tobias and the Angel Raphael, c. 1605’, in Italian Drawings Before 1600, Art Institute of Chicago: A Catalogue of the Collection (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
Hart, Trevor. 2006. ‘Tobit in the Art of Florentine Renaissance’, in Studies in the Book of Tobit: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. by Mark Bredin, LSTS 55 (London: T&T Clark)
All Things at Once, and Forever
Commentary by Mahnaz Yousefzadeh
Three Arabic letters ta ( ط) form the circular shape of a wheel in this painting in the tradition of Persian calligraphy; they draw meaning from the figural elements of the letters. The sixteenth letter in the Arabic Alphabet, ta ( ط) is composed of a horizontal oval and a vertical line. It is the first letter of the name of three generations in the book of Tobit—Tobiel, Tobit, and Tobias—whose name signifies ‘God is good’ in Hebrew.
In Azita Panahpour’s painting, two ط s join together at their base to form the shape of an infinity sign closed on the right but opening to the left. Out of the opening emerges the third ط standing; it is housed. The vertical line of the third ط in turn reaches upward to touch the arm of the upper ط; it continues the circular movement of the letters, the act of writing, and generations.
The painting grants figural expression to the internal structure of human and divine temporality within the book of Tobit. On the one hand, one finds the human time of past and future: the time of three generations of Tobit’s family which comes into being through the mechanism of unsettled debts and promises made. The book of Tobit opens with the memory of Tobit’s father, Tobiel, written for future generations, regarding the effort to settle Tobit’s debt and promise to Archangel Raphael. Tobias’s journey to Media begins when Tobit suddenly remembers an unsettled debt from the past.
On the other hand, the act of writing bears witness in and to the present, according to Raphael’s command, ‘and now give thanks to God … and write in a book’ (12:20). Human time is linked to another temporality, that of the eternity, or the perpetual now, in which all times are simultaneously present to divine providence. The three طs of Panahpour’s painting give (in Walter Benjamin’s terms) a ‘weak messianic’ expression to this structure of time (Benjamin, ‘Thesis II’). It is only in the present, in the time of writing, that the past and the future exist and can be redeemed.
Benjamin, Walter. 2019 . ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (New York: Mariner Books)
Don’t Fear, Write!
Commentary by Mahnaz Yousefzadeh
Painted in 1637, and now at the Louvre, Archangel Raphael Leaves the Family of Tobit is one of approximately 50 paintings, drawings, and etchings related to the book of Tobit executed by Rembrandt van Rijn who felt a particular affinity with the Apocryphal story (Held 1964).
Rembrandt depicts one of the climactic episodes in the book of Tobit which follows the safe return of Tobias and Raphael to Nineveh, in possession of a redeemed debt and their newfound fortune. Raphael, having refused the generous offer of payment for the contracted labour of accompanying Tobias to Media, reveals his identity as a messenger of God. He commands the awestruck father and son to not fear, but to show their gratitude by writing what they witnessed in a book.
Here, Rembrandt depicts the stunned family. Tobit falls to the ground on his hands and knees, in awe and fear. This is a dramatic shift from moments earlier, when Tobit and Tobias had magnanimously discussed proper payment for their hired help, and generously offered to pay him half of their newfound fortune—in their minds, closing the account (12:1–5).
After revealing his identity to Tobit and his family (an identity which the reader of the book of Tobit knows all along) Raphael commands them to write the book of Tobit in lieu of payment just before disappearing (12:15–20). An attitude of beneficence is transformed into a state of obligation by Raphael’s disclosure. Tobit’s debt can only be redeemed by writing the book of Tobit. Thus a plot—Tobias’s journey to Media to claim a debt—is again pressed forward by a new debt. The drama of wonder, reverence, and supplication depicted by Rembrandt explores redemption as a continuous practice of bearing witness, which cannot be settled cheaply, not even with half of one’s earthly fortune.
Held, Julius S. 1964. Rembrandt and the Book of Tobit (Northampton, MA: The Gehenna Press)
Jacopo Ligozzi :
Tobias and his Miraculous Fish, 1609 , Pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with gold, on brown washed paper; squared with black chalk
Azita Panahpour :
Persian Calligraphy Shattered Poem #58, 2021 , Acrylic on canvas
Rembrandt van Rijn :
The Archangel Raphael Leaving the Family of Tobit, 1637 , Oil on wood
Messianic Time of Now
Commentary by Mahnaz Yousefzadeh
The three works of art in this exhibition—early modern European works by Rembrandt van Rijn and Jacopo Ligozzi, and a third by a contemporary painter in the tradition of Persian calligraphy—engage with the economy and structure of human time and divine time as explored in Tobit 12. On the surface, Raphael’s disclosure of his identity and of the miracles appears to convey a redemption and repayment for Tobit’s righteousness: his almsgiving (1:3, 6–8, 17; 4: 7–11), his providing proper burial to the dead (1:17; 2: 4–7), and above all his unfailing faith (5:20–21). Yet, the miracles performed by the messenger of God—exorcising demons, healing blindness, and retrieving fortune—were truly miracles when they were unseen by Tobit and his family, and were ‘visible’ only to the reader of the book of Tobit. As miracles, they interrupt and exceed the closed economy of exchange, debt, and payment.
Raphael’s disclosure of his identity as the messenger of God who is sent to intervene on Tobit’s behalf alters the nature of the effect of the miracles upon the family. Restored, enriched, and magnanimous a moment before, they are now left in fear and debt by the angel’s refusal to take payment and revelation: ‘[t]hey were both alarmed; and they fell upon their faces, for they were afraid’ (12:15–16).
In Rembrandt’s interpretation of the scene, Tobit remains prostrate after and despite Raphael’s reassuring command ‘do not be afraid’. Is Tobit’s fear justified? Raphael, in the position of creditor, has asked Tobit to write, bear witness, or confess in lieu of the payment.
We might say the truly miraculous act in the book of Tobit, was Tobit’s generosity in offering to exceed the terms of the wage contract as he bequeaths to Raphael half of his newly found fortune, and sends him off expecting no more. But only confession in the ‘now’ rather than almsgiving or payment of wages, redeems Tobit. At the end of the story, we are brought back to the beginning of the book. Tobit relates his story in the first person, as in an autobiography; both father and son serve as narrators. As in Azita Panahpour’s painting, the time of three generations of Tobit’s family—past, present, and future—appears in a circular form, as a wheel turned by the continuity of unsettled and redeemed debts which can exist only by a flash of a miracle in the present moment, the time of writing and confession.
Ligozzi similarly, focuses on the moment after Tobias is attacked by a monstrous fish at the river Tigris, seizing it and transforming the crisis into a miracle. The Angel stands behind him, instructing him not to flee, as if prefiguring his words, ‘do not be afraid’ (Tobit 12:17); he should instead snatch the fish and not let go. We see Tobias, in the urgency of his action, with his hands pressing and cutting open the fish to reveal the insides.
Raphael’s imperative to grab and not let go (Tobit 6:3) later reemerges as the imperative to write what you have seen. Tobias must bear witness, seize the moment—in order to redeem the past, but also to create the future.