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)
8 When they had finished eating, they escorted Tobiʹas in to her. 2As he went he remembered the words of Raphael, and he took the live ashes of incense and put the heart and liver of the fish upon them and made a smoke. 3And when the demon smelled the odor he fled to the remotest parts of Egypt, and the angel bound him. 4When the door was shut and the two were alone, Tobiʹas got up from the bed and said, “Sister, get up, and let us pray that the Lord may have mercy upon us.” 5And Tobiʹas began to pray,
“Blessed art thou, O God of our fathers,
and blessed be thy holy and glorious name for ever.
Let the heavens and all thy creatures bless thee.
6Thou madest Adam and gavest him Eve his wife
as a helper and support.
From them the race of mankind has sprung.
Thou didst say, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like himself.’
7And now, O Lord, I am not taking this sister of mine because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that I may find mercy and may grow old together with her.” 8And she said with him, “Amen.” 9Then they both went to sleep for the night.
But Ragʹuel arose and went and dug a grave, 10with the thought, “Perhaps he too will die.” 11Then Ragʹuel went into his house 12and said to his wife Edna, “Send one of the maids to see whether he is alive; and if he is not, let us bury him without any one knowing about it.” 13So the maid opened the door and went in, and found them both asleep. 14And she came out and told them that he was alive. 15Then Ragʹuel blessed God and said,
“Blessed art thou, O God, with every pure and holy blessing.
Let thy saints and all thy creatures bless thee;
let all thy angels and thy chosen people bless thee for ever.
16Blessed art thou, because thou hast made me glad.
It has not happened to me as I expected;
but thou hast treated us according to thy great mercy.
17Blessed art thou, because thou hast had compassion on two only children.
Show them mercy, O Lord;
and bring their lives to fulfilment in health and happiness and mercy.”
18Then he ordered his servants to fill in the grave.
19 After this he gave a wedding feast for them which lasted fourteen days. 20And before the days of the feast were over, Ragʹuel declared by oath to Tobiʹas that he should not leave until the fourteen days of the wedding feast were ended, 21that then he should take half of Ragʹuel’s property and return in safety to his father, and that the rest would be his “when my wife and I die.”