Glass fragment with Tobias and the Fish by Unknown Roman artist

Unknown Roman artist

Glass fragment with Tobias and the Fish, c.300–99, Glass , 2.6 x 1.4 cm, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY; Acquired 1966 from the Collection of Giorgio Sangiorgi, 66.1.204, Photo: Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY

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Angels and Alchemy

Commentary by

This glass fragment would have been one of a number of scenes drawn from both the Old and New Testaments ornamenting the inside of a glass bowl. The majority of such fragments have been found in Roman catacombs, although they might have been connected to festivals rather than funerary rites. As Tobit 3:8–10; 4:4–5; 8:15–18; 11:9–10; 11:14–15; 14:13–14 demonstrate, death and celebration are recurrent themes in the book of Tobit which begins with an account of Tobit’s charitable works, including burying the bodies of murdered Jews (1:17–19; 2:3–4, 7–8), and ends with a hymn of thanksgiving (13:1–16).

Tobias is shown following the Archangel Raphael’s instructions and seizing a fish from the River Tigris. The blue background is appropriate given that Tobias and Raphael stopped ‘when night overtook them’ (6:1). The absence of Raphael focuses attention on the fish which, for Christians, was a familiar symbol for Christ, as the confession Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour) generated the acronym ICHTHUS (‘fish’ in Greek).

The significance of the fish deepens with Raphael’s answers to Tobias’s questions, namely that the heart and liver could be used to cast out demons and the gall for the restoration of sight. Readers of the book of Tobit would have connected these remedies to the individual situations of Tobit (Tobias’s blind father) and Sarah (Tobias’s bedevilled wife-to-be)—a link that Tobias himself will eventually make too.

The medium in which this subject matter has been realized is fitting. Glass was viewed as an alchemical substance because the sand and ash from which it was formed appeared to vanish in its formation. Didymus the Blind (c.313–98 CE) used this process as a metaphor for describing the incarnation of Christ in his commentary on Psalm 44 (Gronewald 1970: 195–97). The idea of transformation is key to the passage: Tobias’s travelling companion from Azariah to Raphael; the fish from monster to the source of healing; and Tobit from blindness to sight.

 

References

Beretta, Marco. 2009. The Alchemy of Glass: Counterfeit, Imitation, and Transmutation in Ancient Glassmaking (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications)

Gronewald, Michael (trans.). 1970. Didymos der Blinde: Psalmenkommentar (Tura-Papyrus) V: Kommentar zu Psalm 40–44, 4 (Bonn: Rudolf Habelt)

Whitehouse, David. 2001. Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass (New York: Hudson Hills Press)


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