The painter shows two figures facing one another on a track in a coastal landscape in the West of Ireland. This enigmatic scene prompts questions. Are we witnessing a meeting between strangers? Is one a ghost, or a hallucination? And—whether earthly or unearthly—is he a guide?
These possibilities might stand for the complex identities of Tobias’s own guide who is presented as Azariah—simultaneously an Israelite, the Archangel Raphael, and a vision (‘Take note that I ate no food; what appeared to you was a vision’; 12:20).
Regardless of identity, the apparently meaningful encounter between the two figures in Jack B. Yeats’s painting, and their intimate relationship with the landscape, resonate with Tobit 6 and 7. Tobias is altered both by his meeting with Raphael and by the journey itself, highlighting the potent nature of encounters ‘on the road’ and of pilgrimage more widely.
Samuel Beckett (1906–89) in his 1954 ‘Hommage à Jack B. Yeats’ concluded that ‘[his painting] incorporates into a single witness dead and living spirits, nature and void, everything that will cease and everything that will never be’ (Rosenthal 1993: x). This description reminds the viewer that Yeats is not depicting an actual scene but conjuring a vision based on ballad, folk tradition, and observation, terms which chime with commentaries that interpret the book of Tobit as folklore. The painter made sketches of the landscapes of the West of Ireland and its characters when travelling with the playwright and collector of folklore, John Millington Synge (1871–1909) for the Manchester Guardian in 1905. The sketches and reproductions of the oil paintings with which they were associated were published as Life in the West of Ireland in 1912 and the present painting is a revisting of this theme.
Beckett’s compelling description of Yeats’s paintings does not acknowledge the unpretentious qualities of his subjects, an observation that draws attention to the fact that God is found in both the ordinary and extraordinary and reemphasizes just how human the narrative of Tobias and the Angel is.
Fuchs, Rudi et al. 1991. Jack B. Yeats: The Late Paintings (Bristol: Arnofini)
Pyle, Hilary. 1994. The Different Worlds of Jack B. Yeats: His Cartoons and Illustrations (Dublin: Irish Academic Press)
Rosenthal, T.G with Hilary Pyle. 1993. The Art of Jack B. Yeats (London: Andre Deutsch)
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.”