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.
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.”