Miracles and Morals: Artists and the Book of Tobit

By De Witt, David | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Miracles and Morals: Artists and the Book of Tobit


De Witt, David, Queen's Quarterly


Among the numerous paintings showing stories from the Bible in European art, there are many that show scenes from the Book of Tobit. Not well known today, this ancient Hebrew text was still read and treasured in the 1500s and 1600s for its moral examples, even though it had been left out of the canon of sacred scripture and relegated to the Apocrypha. The story of the pious old Tobit, accidentally blinded, but supported by his wife and rescued by his faithful son Tobias, enjoyed broad appeal, as reflected in the art of this period. Besides the important moral dramas played out in Tobit, there were also many miracles that captured the imaginations of artists and effected a sense of wonder in their pictures. Foremost among them is Rembrandt, who corrals astonishing effects of light and shade to conjure the dramatic departure of the angel sent to help the family, rising up in the sacrificial smoke, while applying his powers of emotional expression to convey the astonishment of the people left behind.

Central to the book is the long journey of the young Tobias, sent to family members to retrieve money that is now badly needed. The young man Azarius volunteers as his guide, but he is actually the Archangel Raphael in disguise. Along the way, a fish jumps out of the Tigris River to attack Tobias--but, prompted by Azarius, Tobias captures it and culls its organs for use later. This fantastic scene challenged many artists, and the resulting fishes range wildly in size and features. Even more popular were scenes of the long journey itself, which gave artists the opportunity to show landscapes of all types. Flemish artists especially used it to populate rich and imaginative landscapes that found a huge and eager market. The great German painter in Rome, Adam Elsheimer, breathed new life into this tradition with two beautiful and much-imitated compositions, set in lush forests.

Besides loyalty to parents, the Book of Tobit also stresses other family bonds, including marriage. Tobias makes a detour on his way, with a young kinswoman in mind, Sarah. After formalizing the relationship, Tobias sacrifices the fish's liver and heart to drive out the demon that has killed Sarah's previous seven husbands on their wedding nights, bringing her despair, and that of her family, to a happy close. The most incredible moment in the story, it too inspired artists, not just from Rembrandt's circle, but also Jan Steen, who made domestic life his specialty. …

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