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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 http://hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.223134

Francesco Granacci [attrib.]

Life of the Young Tobias, 1535, Oil on panel, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Photo: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

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

Tobias in Time

Comparative Commentary by

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.