Episodes from the Story of Tobit Unknown French artist

Unknown French artist

Episodes from the Story of Tobit, c.1194–1230, Stone carving, North porch, right portal, right archivolts, Chartres Cathedral, France, robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

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Not for fleshly lust

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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’.

 

References

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)


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