Tobias and the Angel
Commentary by Harriet O’Neill
The painter shows two figures facing one another on a track in a coastal landscape in the West of Ireland. This enigmatic scene prompts questions. Are we witnessing a meeting between strangers? Is one a ghost, or a hallucination? And—whether earthly or unearthly—is he a guide?
These possibilities might stand for the complex identities of Tobias’s own guide who is presented as Azariah—simultaneously an Israelite, the Archangel Raphael, and a vision (‘Take note that I ate no food; what appeared to you was a vision’; 12:20).
Regardless of identity, the apparently meaningful encounter between the two figures in Jack B. Yeats’s painting, and their intimate relationship with the landscape, resonate with Tobit 6 and 7. Tobias is altered both by his meeting with Raphael and by the journey itself, highlighting the potent nature of encounters ‘on the road’ and of pilgrimage more widely.
Samuel Beckett (1906–89) in his 1954 ‘Hommage à Jack B. Yeats’ concluded that ‘[his painting] incorporates into a single witness dead and living spirits, nature and void, everything that will cease and everything that will never be’ (Rosenthal 1993: x). This description reminds the viewer that Yeats is not depicting an actual scene but conjuring a vision based on ballad, folk tradition, and observation, terms which chime with commentaries that interpret the book of Tobit as folklore. The painter made sketches of the landscapes of the West of Ireland and its characters when travelling with the playwright and collector of folklore, John Millington Synge (1871–1909) for the Manchester Guardian in 1905. The sketches and reproductions of the oil paintings with which they were associated were published as Life in the West of Ireland in 1912 and the present painting is a revisiting of this theme.
Beckett’s compelling description of Yeats’s paintings does not acknowledge the unpretentious qualities of his subjects, an observation that draws attention to the fact that God is found in both the ordinary and extraordinary and reemphasizes just how human the narrative of Tobias and the Angel is.
Fuchs, Rudi et al. 1991. Jack B. Yeats: The Late Paintings (Bristol: Arnofini)
Pyle, Hilary. 1994. The Different Worlds of Jack B. Yeats: His Cartoons and Illustrations (Dublin: Irish Academic Press)
Rosenthal, T.G with Hilary Pyle. 1993. The Art of Jack B. Yeats (London: Andre Deutsch)
Commentary by Harriet O’Neill
This panel does not depict a specific moment in the book of Tobit but offers a compressed version of 6:1–9.
Raphael, shown with outstretched wings and a halo, holds a box which we know contains the liver, heart, and gall of the fish; the cure for all the suffering narrated in Tobit.
Tobias, cast as a young Florentine, clutches a scroll inscribed Ricordo (memorandum)—a reference to the silver Tobit had deposited with Gabael in Media and the ostensible reason for his journey (4:20–21). Tobias also holds a string with a small fish at the end, hardly of a size that could threaten to swallow his foot as described in the text (6:2).
At their feet is a dog, a detail which is mentioned in passing in the text but is almost always included in images relating to it. The ground they are standing on is rocky but the path provides assurance that there is a way through—and indeed back—lending credence to Azariah’s [Raphael’s] insistence that Tobias should not worry (6:17).
Tobias and the Angel was a popular subject in Florentine devotional art between 1450 and 1480, a taste which can, in part, be attributed to a particular devotion to the Archangel Raphael. The panel was intended for private devotional use and Andrea del Verrocchio and his workshop have adopted particular devices to engage the viewer—for example, depicting Tobias and Raphael in Florentine dress within an Italian landscape rather than in third-century Media.
Arguably, it is the evident tenderness between the two figures that makes the panel so spiritually compelling. We know from the text that Tobias and his guide became swift companions (‘Tobias my friend’; 6:10) and this is suggested by the shared shapes of Tobias’s cloak and Raphael’s wings, their steps which have fallen in sync with one another, and most notably their interlinked arms. Tobias’s finger rests on Raphael’s wrist, a gesture which makes the angel seem tangible and present.
Covi, Dario. 2005. Andrea del Verrocchio Life and Work (Florence: Olschki)
Dunkerton, Jill et al. 1991. Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance Paintings at the National Gallery (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Hammond, Joseph. 2011. ‘The Cult and Representation of the Archangel Raphael in Sixteenth-Century Venice’, St Andrews Journal of Art History and Museum Studies, 15: 79–86)
Angels and Alchemy
Commentary by Harriet O’Neill
This glass fragment would have been one of a number of scenes drawn from both the Old and New Testaments ornamenting the inside of a glass bowl. The majority of such fragments have been found in Roman catacombs, although they might have been connected to festivals rather than funerary rites. As Tobit 3:8–10; 4:4–5; 8:15–18; 11:9–10, 14–15; 14:13–14 demonstrate, death and celebration are recurrent themes in the book of Tobit which begins with an account of Tobit’s charitable works, including burying the bodies of murdered Jews (1:17–19; 2:3–4, 7–8), and ends with a hymn of thanksgiving (13:1–16).
Tobias is shown following the Archangel Raphael’s instructions and seizing a fish from the River Tigris. The blue background is appropriate given that Tobias and Raphael stopped ‘when night overtook them’ (6:1). The absence of Raphael focuses attention on the fish which, for Christians, was a familiar symbol for Christ, as the confession Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour) generated the acronym ICHTHUS (‘fish’ in Greek).
The significance of the fish deepens with Raphael’s answers to Tobias’s questions, namely that the heart and liver could be used to cast out demons and the gall for the restoration of sight. Readers of the book of Tobit would have connected these remedies to the individual situations of Tobit (Tobias’s blind father) and Sarah (Tobias’s bedevilled wife-to-be)—a link that Tobias himself will eventually make too.
The medium in which this subject matter has been realized is fitting. Glass was viewed as an alchemical substance because the sand and ash from which it was formed appeared to vanish in its formation. Didymus the Blind (c.313–98 CE) used this process as a metaphor for describing the incarnation of Christ in his commentary on Psalm 44 (Gronewald 1970: 195–97). The idea of transformation is key to the passage: Tobias’s travelling companion from Azariah to Raphael; the fish from monster to the source of healing; and Tobit from blindness to sight.
Beretta, Marco. 2009. The Alchemy of Glass: Counterfeit, Imitation, and Transmutation in Ancient Glassmaking (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications)
Gronewald, Michael (trans.). 1970. Didymos der Blinde: Psalmenkommentar (Tura-Papyrus) V: Kommentar zu Psalm 40–44, 4 (Bonn: Rudolf Habelt)
Whitehouse, David. 2001. Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass (New York: Hudson Hills Press)
Jack B. Yeats :
Two Travellers, 1942 , Oil on wood
Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop :
Tobias and the Angel, c.1470–5 , Tempera on wood
Unknown Roman artist :
Glass fragment with Tobias and the Fish, c.300–99 , Glass
Looking And Yet Not Seeing
Commentary by Harriet O’Neill
The classification of the book of Tobit as Apocrypha, from the Greek meaning ‘concealed’, is particularly appropriate to the episode described here where appearances are not what they initially seem, and revelation is gradual.
This Jewish text, probably written between the third and second centuries BCE, has been described as folklore in numerous commentaries. However—as the fourth-century glass fragment and the fifteenth-century Tobias and the Angel panel both show—it has also been read in Christian theological terms. By contrast, Two Travellers by Jack B. Yeats demonstrates that its main tropes—sight and seeing, transformation and journeys—do not depend on an explicitly Christian frame of reference and prompt insights into the contemporary world. Perhaps it is the human qualities of the book of Tobit—family bonds, a desire for suffering to end, and friendship—which can account for its enduring relevance regardless of faith.
The story is framed around the physical and spiritual journey Tobias undertakes with his guide, Azariah. His journey is prompted by his father, Tobit, who (blinded, and wishing for his own death) recalls depositing a quantity of silver in Media which he instructs Tobias to recover (4:20–21). Simultaneously, Tobias’s kinswoman and future wife, Sarah, contemplates suicide after her seventh husband is killed on their wedding night by a demon (3:8). These two threads are united in and by Tobias who brings about resolution in the form of the restoration of Tobit’s sight and the flight of the demon.
The appearance of the Archangel Raphael, as an instrument of God’s mercy and commitment to the faithful, is alluded to differently in the three works. These differences arise, in part, as a response to the visual challenge created by the combination of narrative and direct speech in the verses under discussion. This strategy acts as a device through which readers can observe and comprehend what they know Tobias cannot, namely that his travelling companion who he believes is Azariah (and more frequently refers to as ‘young man’) is in fact the Archangel Raphael. The panel by Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop contrives to put the viewer in the same position as the reader of the passage, most obviously by showing Raphael in angelic form.
The glass fragment depicts Tobias, alone, either grasping or plunging his hand into the mouth of the fish. We nonetheless know from the text that Azariah, or the Archangel Raphael, is instructing the boy to ‘Seize the fish and hold it fast’ (6:3–4) from outside the heavily delineated golden frame. Although the fragment dates from the fourth century, it is an apt illustration of Catholic understanding of guardian angels which was developed in the early-seventeenth century, particularly in relationship to free will. It was maintained that angels could lead individuals towards salvation, but that they had to choose to follow. That is what we see here: Tobias guided but ultimately choosing to obey.
The omission of the Archangel in the glass fragment was common to other versions dating from the same period. This absence might relate to the fact that thinking about angels at this time was far from unified, with some theologians shying away from the subject and others maintaining that—although real—divine guides were invisible (Muehlberger 2013: 3, 97).
Importantly, for the readers’ understanding of the narrative, Tobias does not follow his guide blindly. Indeed, he questions Raphael when he is informed that he will marry Sarah and is as a result told ‘Have you forgotten the order your father gave you? ... Now be guided by me’ (6:15).
His unseeing and piecemeal comprehension can be drawn out through reference to Two Travellers. Initially the viewer struggles to separate mountain and rock from sea and sky; the composition cannot be adequately understood from one vantage point, and the identity of and relationship between the two figures is unclear. And yet, once our eyes adjust, the composition becomes legible, a process which mirrors Tobias’ ultimate revelation.
In 1948 Ernst Gombrich wrote about the Tobias and the Angel panel in terms of the underground resistance in and after the Second World War (1972: 26–30). Yeats’s 1942 painting, meanwhile, presents the travellers as though part of the very landscape of the West of Ireland—persevering like the country’s native culture and Catholic faith despite centuries of oppression. The work has also been associated with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1948–49). Vladimir and Estragon, the central characters in the play, in their seemingly interminable wait for the powerful and mysterious Godot, demonstrate a similar stoical resilience to Tobias and those Israelites whose experience he may embody, deported from their homeland to the Assyrian Empire in the late eighth century BCE.
Butterfield, Andrew. 1997. The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio (New Haven: Yale University Press)
Fleming, Stuart. 1999. Roman Glass: Reflections on Cultural Change (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum)
Gombrich, Ernst. 1972 (1948). Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (Phaidon: London)
Harden, Donald et al. 1987. Glass of the Caesars (Milan: Olivetti)
Hart, Trevor. 2006. ‘Tobit in the Art of the Florentine Renaissance,’ in Studies in the Book of Tobit: A Multidisciplinary Approach, ed. by M. Bredin (London: T&T Clark)
Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, Dedo von. 2019. ‘The Meaning of Glass. Case Studies from Mesopotamia to Rome’, West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, 26:1: 38–60
Muehlberger, Ellen. 2013. Angels in Late Ancient Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Muñoz, Antonio. 1911. La mostra d’arte retrospettiva a Castel Sant’Angelo e la collezione di stoffe di Giorgio Sangiorgi (Rome: Bertero)
Philpot, Elizabeth. 2009. Old Testament Apocryphal Images in European Art, Gothenberg Studies in Art and Architecture, 30 (Gothenberg: Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis)