One Wedding and No Funeral
The Devil is in the Detail
Commentary by Federico Botana
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)
A Virtuous Wife
Commentary by Federico Botana
This is the first in a set of two spalliera panels representing the Story of Tobias, attributed in the past to the Florentine painters Francesco Granacci and Giuliano Bugiardini. Spalliera panels were usually inserted into wainscoting or placed in the backboards of wedding chests (cassoni).
This panel illustrates the story of Tobias from his departure from Nineveh to the third day after his wedding. The events narrated in Tobit 8 are represented under the third arch of the building on the right. As in the north-transept façade of Chartres Cathedral (also in this exhibition), Tobias and Sarah are portrayed praying by their bed, whilst in the foreground we see Raphael restraining Asmodeus next to a vessel with burning coals. But we also see here, peeking through a door, the chambermaid sent by Sarah’s mother to check on the newlyweds (8:15).
Wealthy Florentine families usually purchased spalliere on the occasion of a wedding to decorate the new couple’s bedroom. The subjects depicted on spalliere often featured virtuous heroines, mainly from the Bible and classical legends (they included Judith, Esther, Lucretia, and Cornelia), who could serve as role models to a young wife.
Sarah was one such role model, as we discover in the Regola della vita matrimoniale, a manual written for young wives by the Franciscan friar Cherubino da Spoleto (1414–84). The Regola was published in Florence in 1477 and rapidly became a best seller. In the Regola, Sarah is recurrently referred to as a virtuous wife. Moreover, the author states that her seven husbands were ‘suffocated by the devil’ because of their libidinous inclinations.
The statement occurs at the beginning of a long section describing—quite explicitly—the sexual practices a young wife should avoid in order not to fall into mortal sin. It is also relevant in relation to this painting that Tobias and Sarah’s three days of prayer and sexual abstinence after their wedding were invoked as an example to follow by newlyweds, first in ecumenical legislation and later in penitential literature (Santyves 1934).
Musacchio, Jaqueline. 2008. Art, Marriage, and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Saintyves, Pierre. 1934. ‘Les trois nuits de Tobie’, Revue anthropologique, 44: 266–96
Not for fleshly lust
Commentary by Federico Botana
Tobit 8 is illustrated by the second and third carvings (from bottom) on the right side of the outer archivolt. In the upper carving we see Tobias and Sarah joining in prayer behind the nuptial bed. The smoking vessel in the foreground indicates that Tobias has followed the Archangel Raphael's instructions and has placed the fish’s liver on burning coals. Consequently, in the lower carving we see Raphael capturing the demon Asmodeus.
In Chartres Cathedral, the cycle devoted to the story of Tobit forms part of a complex typological programme combining Old and New Testament subjects. The commentary on Tobit by the Northumbrian monk the Venerable Bede (672–735 BCE)—the most-frequently cited exegetical source on Tobit in the Middle Ages—helps us understand the meaning of these two carvings in Chartres (Katzenellenbogen 1964: 72–73).
For Bede, Tobit symbolizes Israel, whilst Sarah’s father, Raguel, represents the Gentiles—namely the pagan nations who venerated idols and whom, according to Bede, were ‘all held hostage by the devil’ until the coming of Christ (Migne 1844–65, vol. 91, col. 926). Raphael anticipates the divinity of Christ, Tobias His humanity, and Sarah the Church, born to the Gentiles (Migne 1844–65, vol. 91, cols. 926, 929–30). The union of Tobias and Sarah anticipates the union of Christians in the Church: the burning of the fish’s liver symbolises the purification of the ‘fleshly minded’ who are rendered spiritual and strong by the ‘fire of God’s love’ (Migne 1844–65, vol. 91, col. 929).
However, for a medieval viewer, Asmodeus did not just evoke idolatry. Particularly notable are his large testicles and the small-demon head sprouting from his anus. The first probably alluded to the sin of lust; the second may refer to one of its medieval subcategories: sodomy—which in the Middle Ages comprised any sexual behaviour then considered against nature (Bullough and Brundage 1996: 40–1). Given that the Church in the Middle Ages approved only vaginal intercourse between married couples, and only if practised to produce children, then this could encompass virtually all other types of sexual contact.
In Tobit 6:17, we discover that Sarah’s previous seven husbands succumbed to lust on their wedding nights and were thus killed by Asmodeus. By contrast, in Tobit 8:9 we learn that Tobias and Sarah did not unite for ‘fleshly lust’ but (in the Vulgate translation) ‘only for the love of posterity’.
Bullough, Vern L., and James A. Brundage. 1996. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (New York: Garland)
Katzenellenbogen, Adolf. 1964. The Sculptural Programs of Chartres Cathedral (New York: Norton)
Migne, Jacques-Paul (ed.). 1844–65. Patrologiae cursus completus: series latina, 221 vols (Paris: Migne)
Cornelis Cort [attrib.] after Maerten van Heemskerck :
Tobias burning the Heart and the Liver of the Fish, 1556 , Engraving
Francesco Granacci [attrib.] :
Life of the Young Tobias, 1535 , Oil on panel
Unknown French artist :
Episodes from the Story of Tobit, c.1194–1230 , Stone carving
Tobias in Time
Comparative commentary by Federico Botana
With the help of the Archangel Raphael, Tobias has already captured the giant fish in the river Tigris and extracted the gall that will cure his father Tobit’s blindness (Tobit 6:9). But before he returns to Nineveh, he must consummate his marriage to Sarah without losing his life.
To accomplish this, Tobias follows Raphael’s instructions and burns part of the liver, which he also extracted from the fish. As Tobias performs the exorcism, the demon Asmodeus, who killed Sarah’s previous seven husbands, is unleashed and captured by Raphael, who takes him to upper Egypt and binds him forever in the desert. But before having sexual relations, which shall only be ‘for the love of posterity’ (Tobit 8:9, Vulgate), Tobias and Sarah must consecrate three days to prayer.
In the three examples shown in this exhibition, Tobias and Sarah are portrayed praying by the bed whilst Asmodeus is being put out of action. There are, however, significant differences. Whilst the carvings in Chartres Cathedral represent the events without incidental details, in the spalliera panel we can see the maid sent by Sarah’s mother to check on the newlyweds on the third morning after their wedding, and the engraving shows the servants of Sarah’s father, Raguel, digging a grave for Tobias (Raguel expected Tobias to die on his wedding night). Moreover, the engraving does not show Raphael capturing Asmodeus as described in the text; instead, the archangel is standing next to Tobias whilst he is burning the fish’s liver in the hearth, which results in the demon being pushed into the chimney conduit by a vigorous plume of smoke.
These differences can be accounted for by the original functions and contexts of each example. The reliefs at Chartres form part of an extensive typological programme combining Old and New Testament subjects. The cycle on Tobit is juxtaposed with cycles on Gideon, Samson, and Judith in the inner archivolts of the same portal, and the Suffering of Job in its tympanum. Medieval exegetes saw these Old Testament figures as antitypes of Christ, with the exception of Judith, who, like Sarah, was considered an antitype of Mary and the Church. Indeed, in the tympanum of the contiguous portal we discover the Coronation of the Virgin. The programme stresses, above all, that the Church must suffer hardships but will triumph at the end of time. Worshippers who walked into the cathedral were entering the Church both physically and symbolically.
By contrast, the spalliera was most probably intended for a bedroom where it would have been seen mainly by a married couple and their close family. Subjects depicted on spalliere were often chosen for the moral edification of the bride, the groom, and their future children. The chambermaid peeking through the door could serve as a reminder of the traditional prescription of three days of sexual abstinence after a wedding (see A Virtuous Wife in this exhibition). At the same time, she is reminiscent of Florentine domestic life, like the silverware displayed in a credenza under the first arch of the building—silverware was displayed in this fashion during wedding celebrations. The children playing in the foreground are also notable. It was believed that images of children encouraged young couples to procreate. Also, it was recommended that parents have pictures of religious subjects that included children in their homes, to inspire piety in their young offspring.
The engraving was intended for a different type of viewer again. In the sixteenth century, engravings of such high quality were bought mainly by wealthy collectors who usually kept them in cabinets and showed them to their learned friends. An educated viewer would have been able to appreciate the antiquarian details in the engraving. Also, educated viewers would have admired the naturalism with which events are represented, notably the fumigation of Asmodeus. In fact, Van Heemskerck may have been inspired by actual exorcism practices—for example, in Remedia efficacissima in malignos spiritus expellendos, written by the Franciscan exorcist Girolamo Menghi (1529–1609), we discover a potion combining sulphur, asafoetida, and rue, which was thrown into the fire to repel evil spirits.
To conclude, these three examples attest to the enduring appeal of the story of Tobias, which can be visually staged to fulfil different functions for different audiences. It is a fascinating and engaging story with an endless potential to convey the moral and allegorical senses of the Scriptures according to the needs of place and time.