This engraving illustrates three passages in Tobit 8, with some additions to the original narrative. On the right, Tobias is placing the fish’s liver on burning coals (8:2). Raphael, whose presence in the bedchamber is not mentioned in the text, is standing by Tobias, whilst a diminutive Asmodeus is being driven up the chimney by a vigorous plume of smoke. In the background, Tobias and Sarah, tenderly looking at each other, are praying at the foot of the bed (8:4–7). On the left, through a door, we can see Raguel’s servants preparing a tomb for Tobias (8:11). In the centre of the picture, Tobias’s dog, whose presence here is not mentioned in Tobit 8 either, is apparently interested in the remains of the fish kept in Tobias’s bag.
Despite these humorous notes, two details suggest that Maerten van Heemskerck intended an underlying moral commentary when he made the drawing for this engraving. These two details can be traced back to drawings made by the painter during his trips to Rome in 1534–37.
The first—the figure (an ‘Atlante’) supporting the fireplace’s lintel—is based on a satyr which Van Heemskerck reproduced from a second-century carved marble Bacchic sarcophagus, at that time in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, and today in the British Museum (inv. 1805,0703.130).
The second—the creature carved on the left corner of the bed—evokes the griffins supporting the base of a third-century marble table recorded by the painter, still today in the monastery of San Gregorio Magno al Celio. However, the creature in the engraving also has female breasts, like the sphinx drawn by Van Heemskerck from the base of an ancient candelabrum then in the mausoleum of Santa Costanza. We discover similar hybrid creatures, also decorating bedroom furniture, in two other engravings after Van Heemskerck, both illustrating passages in the Old Testament referring to lust: Amnon debauching Tamar (2 Samuel 13), and Joseph fleeing the embraces of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:13).
Thus, like the Bacchic Atlante, the griffin–sphinx seems to tell us that Tobias and Sarah were exposed to the temptations of the flesh, but did not succumb.
Hülsen, Christian, and Hermann Egger (eds). 1913–16. Die römischen Skizzenbücher von Marten van Heemskerck im Königlichen Kupferstichkabinett zu Berlin, 2 vols (Berlin: J. Bard)
Veldman, Ilja. 1977. Maarten van Hemskerck and Dutch Humanism in the Sixteenth Century, Trans. by Michael Hoyle (Maarssen: G. Schwartz)
8 When they had finished eating, they escorted Tobiʹas in to her. 2As he went he remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. 3And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him. 4When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobiʹas got up from the bed and said, “Sister, get up, and let us pray that the Lord may have mercy upon us.” 5And Tobiʹas began to pray,
“Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers,
and blessed be thy holy and glorious name for ever.
Let the heavens and all thy creatures bless thee.
6Thou madest Adam and gavest him Eve his wife
as a helper and support.
From them the race of mankind has sprung.
Thou didst say, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like himself.’
7And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” 8And she said with him, “Amen.” 9Then they both went to sleep for the night.
But Ragʹuel arose and went and dug a grave, 10with the thought, “Perhaps he too will die.” 11Then Ragʹuel went into his house 12and said to his wife Edna, “Send one of the maids to see whether he is alive; and if he is not, let us bury him without any one knowing about it.” 13So the maid opened the door and went in, and found them both asleep. 14And she came out and told them that he was alive. 15Then Ragʹuel blessed God and said,
“Blessed art thou, O God, with every pure and holy blessing.
Let thy saints and all thy creatures bless thee;
let all thy angels and thy chosen people bless thee for ever.
16Blessed art thou, because thou hast made me glad.
It has not happened to me as I expected;
but thou hast treated us according to thy great mercy.
17Blessed art thou, because thou hast had compassion on two only children.
Show them mercy, O Lord;
and bring their lives to fulfilment in health and happiness and mercy.”
18Then he ordered his servants to fill in the grave.
19 After this he gave a wedding feast for them which lasted fourteen days. 20And before the days of the feast were over, Ragʹuel declared by oath to Tobiʹas that he should not leave until the fourteen days of the wedding feast were ended, 21that then he should take half of Ragʹuel’s property and return in safety to his father, and that the rest would be his “when my wife and I die.”