The classification of the book of Tobit as Apocrypha, from the Greek meaning ‘concealed’, is particularly appropriate to the episode described here where appearances are not what they initially seem, and revelation is gradual.
This Jewish text, probably written between the third and second centuries BCE, has been described as folklore in numerous commentaries. However—as the fourth-century glass fragment and the fifteenth-century Tobias and the Angel panel both show—it has also been read in Christian theological terms. By contrast, Two Travellers by Jack B. Yeats demonstrates that its main tropes—sight and seeing, transformation and journeys—do not depend on an explicitly Christian frame of reference and prompt insights into the contemporary world. Perhaps it is the human qualities of the book of Tobit—family bonds, a desire for suffering to end, and friendship—which can account for its enduring relevance regardless of faith.
The story is framed around the physical and spiritual journey Tobias undertakes with his guide, Azariah. His journey is prompted by his father, Tobit, who (blinded, and wishing for his own death) recalls depositing a quantity of silver in Media which he instructs Tobias to recover (4:20–21). Simultaneously, Tobias’s kinswoman and future wife, Sarah, contemplates suicide after her seventh husband is killed on their wedding night by a demon (3:8). These two threads are united in and by Tobias who brings about resolution in the form of the restoration of Tobit’s sight and the flight of the demon.
The appearance of the Archangel Raphael, as an instrument of God’s mercy and commitment to the faithful, is alluded to differently in the three works. These differences arise, in part, as a response to the visual challenge created by the combination of narrative and direct speech in the verses under discussion. This strategy acts as a device through which readers can observe and comprehend what they know Tobias cannot, namely that his travelling companion who he believes is Azariah (and more frequently refers to as ‘young man’) is in fact, the Archangel Raphael. The panel by the Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop contrives to put the viewer in the same position as the reader of the passage, most obviously by showing Raphael in angelic form.
The glass fragment depicts Tobias, alone, either grasping or plunging his hand into the mouth of the fish. We nonetheless know from the text that Azariah, or the Archangel Raphael, is instructing the boy to ‘Seize the fish and hold it fast’ (6:3–4) from outside the heavily delineated golden frame. Although the fragment dates from the fourth century, it is an apt illustration of Catholic understanding of guardian angels which was developed in the early-seventeenth century, particularly in relationship to free will. It was maintained that angels could lead individuals towards salvation, but that they had to choose to follow. That is what we see here: Tobias guided but ultimately choosing to obey.
The omission of the Archangel in the glass fragment was common to other versions dating from the same period. This absence might relate to the fact that thinking about angels at this time was far from unified, with some theologians shying away from the subject and others maintaining that—although real—divine guides were invisible (Muehlberger 2013: 3, 97).
Importantly, for the readers’ understanding of the narrative, Tobias does not follow his guide blindly. Indeed, he questions Raphael when he is informed that he will marry Sarah and is as a result told ‘Have you forgotten the order your father gave you? ... Now be guided by me’ (6:15). His unseeing and piecemeal comprehension can be drawn out through reference to Two Travellers. Initially the viewer struggles to separate mountain and rock from sea and sky; the composition cannot be adequately understood from one vantage point, and the identity of and relationship between the two figures is unclear. And yet, once our eyes adjust the composition becomes legible, a process which mirrors Tobias’ ultimate revelation.
In 1948 Ernst Gombrich wrote about the Tobias and the Angel panel in terms of the underground resistance in and after the Second World War (1972: 26–30). Yeats’s 1942 painting, meanwhile, presents the travellers as though part of the very landscape of the West of Ireland—persevering like the country’s native culture and Catholic faith despite centuries of oppression. The work has also been associated with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1948–49). Vladimir and Estragon, the central characters in the play, in their seemingly interminable wait for the powerful and mysterious Godot, demonstrate a similar stoical resilience to Tobias and those Israelites whose experience he may embody, deported from their homeland to the Assyrian Empire in the late eighth century BCE.
Butterfield, Andrew. 1997. The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Fleming, Stuart. 1999. Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum)
Gombrich, Ernst. 1972 (1948). Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (Phaidon: London)
Harden, Donald et al. 1987. Glass of the Caesars (Milan: Olivetti)
Hart, Trevor. 2006. ‘Tobit in the Art of the Florentine Renaissance,’ in Studies in the Book of Tobit: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. by M. Bredin (London: T&T Clark)
Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, Dedo von. 2019. ‘The Meaning of Glass. Case Studies from Mesopotamia to Rome’, West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, 26:1: 38–60
Muehlberger, Ellen. 2013. Angels in Late Ancient Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Muñoz, Antonio. 1911. La mostra d’arte retrospettiva a Castel Sant’Angelo e la collezione di stoffe di Giorgio Sangiorgi (Rome: Bertero)
Philpot, Elizabeth. 2009. Old Testament Apocryphal Images in European Art, Gothenberg Studies in Art and Architecture, 30 (Gothenberg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis)
6 Now as they proceeded on their way they came at evening to the Tigris river and camped there. 2Then the young man went down to wash himself. A fish leaped up from the river and would have swallowed the young man; 3and the angel said to him, “Catch the fish.” So the young man seized the fish and threw it up on the land. 4Then the angel said to him, “Cut open the fish and take the heart and liver and gall and put them away safely.” 5So the young man did as the angel told him; and they roasted and ate the fish.
And they both continued on their way until they came near to Ecbatʹana. 6Then the young man said to the angel, “Brother Azariʹas, of what use is the liver and heart and gall of the fish?” 7He replied, “As for the heart and the liver, if a demon or evil spirit gives trouble to any one, you make a smoke from these before the man or woman, and that person will never be troubled again. 8And as for the gall, anoint with it a man who has white films in his eyes, and he will be cured.”
9 When they approached Ecbatʹana, 10the angel said to the young man, “Brother, today we shall stay with Ragʹuel. He is your relative, and he has an only daughter named Sarah. I will suggest that she be given to you in marriage, 11because you are entitled to her and to her inheritance, for you are her only eligible kinsman. 12The girl is also beautiful and sensible. Now listen to my plan. I will speak to her father, and as soon as we return from Rages we will celebrate the marriage. For I know that Ragʹuel, according to the law of Moses, cannot give her to another man without incurring the penalty of death, because you rather than any other man are entitled to the inheritance.”
13 Then the young man said to the angel, “Brother Azariʹas, I have heard that the girl has been given to seven husbands and that each died in the bridal chamber. 14Now I am the only son my father has, and I am afraid that if I go in I will die as those before me did, for a demon is in love with her, and he harms no one except those who approach her. So now I fear that I may die and bring the lives of my father and mother to the grave in sorrow on my account. And they have no other son to bury them.”
15 But the angel said to him, “Do you not remember the words with which your father commanded you to take a wife from among your own people? Now listen to me, brother, for she will become your wife; and do not worry about the demon, for this very night she will be given to you in marriage. 16When you enter the bridal chamber, you shall take live ashes of incense and lay upon them some of the heart and liver of the fish so as to make a smoke. 17Then the demon will smell it and flee away, and will never again return. And when you approach her, rise up, both of you, and cry out to the merciful God, and he will save you and have mercy on you. Do not be afraid, for she was destined for you from eternity. You will save her, and she will go with you, and I suppose that you will have children by her.” When Tobiʹas heard these things, he fell in love with her and yearned deeply for her.
7 When they reached Ecbatʹana and arrived at the house of Ragʹuel, Sarah met them and greeted them. They returned her greeting, and she brought them into the house. 2Then Ragʹuel said to his wife Edna, “How much the young man resembles my cousin Tobit!” 3And Ragʹuel asked them, “Where are you from, brethren?” They answered him, “We belong to the sons of Naphʹtali, who are captives in Ninʹeveh.” 4So he said to them, “Do you know our brother Tobit?” And they said, “Yes, we do.” And he asked them, “Is he in good health?” 5They replied, “He is alive and in good health.” And Tobiʹas said, “He is my father.” 6Then Ragʹuel sprang up and kissed him and wept. 7And he blessed him and exclaimed, “Son of that good and noble man!” When he heard that Tobit had lost his sight, he was stricken with grief and wept. 8And his wife Edna and his daughter Sarah wept. They received them very warmly; and they killed a ram from the flock and set large servings of food before them.
Then Tobiʹas said to Raphael, “Brother Azariʹas, speak of those things which you talked about on the journey, and let the matter be settled.” 9So he communicated the proposal to Ragʹuel. And Ragʹuel said to Tobiʹas, “Eat, drink, and be merry; 10for it is your right to take my child. But let me explain the true situation to you. 11I have given my daughter to seven husbands, and when each came to her he died in the night. But for the present be merry.” And Tobiʹas said, “I will eat nothing here until you make a binding agreement with me.” 12So Ragʹuel said, “Take her right now, in accordance with the law. You are her relative, and she is yours. The merciful God will guide you both for the best.” 13Then he called his daughter Sarah, and taking her by the hand he gave her to Tobiʹas to be his wife, saying, “Here she is; take her according to the law of Moses, and take her with you to your father.” And he blessed them. 14Next he called his wife Edna, and took a scroll and wrote out the contract; and they set their seals to it. 15Then they began to eat.
16 And Ragʹuel called his wife Edna and said to her, “Sister, make up the other room, and take her into it.” 17So she did as he said, and took her there; and the girl began to weep. But the mother comforted her daughter in her tears, and said to her, 18“Be brave, my child; the Lord of heaven and earth grant you joy in place of this sorrow of yours. Be brave, my daughter.”