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Two Travellers by Jack B. Yeats
Tobias and the Angel by Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop
Glass fragment with Tobias and the Fish by Unknown Roman artist

Jack B. Yeats

Two Travellers, 1942, Oil on wood, 92.1 x 122.6 cm, Tate; Purchased 1946, N05660, © Estate of Jack B Yeats. All rights reserved, DACS / ARS 2019; Photo: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

Andrea del Verrocchio and workshop

Tobias and the Angel, c.1470–5, Tempera on wood, 83.6 x 66 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought, 1867, NG781, Photo: © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Unknown Roman artist

Glass fragment with Tobias and the Fish, c.300–99, Glass , 2.6 x 1.4 cm, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY; Acquired 1966 from the Collection of Giorgio Sangiorgi, 66.1.204, Photo: Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY

Looking And Yet Not Seeing

Comparative Commentary by

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 the 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.

 

References

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)