Tobias burning the Heart and the Liver of the Fish by Cornelis Cort [attrib.] after Maerten van Heemskerck

Cornelis Cort [attrib.] after Maerten van Heemskerck

Tobias burning the Heart and the Liver of the Fish, 1556, Engraving, 200 x 243 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Purchased with the support of the F.G. Waller-Fonds, 1980, RP-P-1980-73, Photo: Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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The Devil is in the Detail

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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)

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