Saturday, 28 February 2015

Tobias and the angel

Tobias and the Angel Raphael  Studio of Andrea Verrocchio, c.  1470-75
© National Gallery, London

Book of Tobit, Ch. VI.  " Now as they went on their journey, they came at eventide to the river Tigris, and they lodged there. But the young man went down to wash himself, and a fish leaped out of  the river, and would have swallowed up the young man.  But the angel said unto him, 'Take hold of the fish,'  and the young man caught hold of the fish, and cast it upon the land."

In this story from the Biblical Apocrypha, young Tobias is sent by his blind father Tobit on a long journey from Nineveh to Media to collect some money. Unknowingly, he hires as his companion the angel Raphael.  Instructed by the angel, the heart and liver saved from his adventure with the fish, have magical properties, which help Tobias to drive away the demon haunting Sarah, a kinsman's daughter, and win her as his bride.  On his return home the fish-gall heals his father's eyes and Raphael the angel reveals himself.

The story treats the struggle with the fish - which was probably a crocodile - very matter of factly, and in the painting from Verrocchio's workshop it is shown as quite small. I have always liked the idea that
the guardian angel does not leap into the river to help Tobias, but shouts instructions at him from the bank, so that he is able to save himself and catch the giant 'fish'.  This painting is a visual feast of colour, with its  repeating patterns of curves and angles, a wonderful Renaissance image of Tobias in contemporary dress and an Italian landscape behind, accompanied by the winged Raphael, and Tobias' faithful dog.  (Angel wings were a Christian convention derived from the winged Victory images of the classical world.)  Although a workshop piece,  it is thought that the young Leonardo painted the fish and the dog.

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