Day 4 – Tobias and the Angel

Day 4 – Workshop of Verrocchio, Tobias and the Angel, about 1470-5, National Gallery, London.

Originally posted on 22 March 2020

Day 4 and I’m building up a number of ideas, thanks to your queries, requests and enthusiasms. Thanks for the various nominations for ‘Best Cabbage in Art’ – I’ll get back to those, I suspect, keep them coming, and I’m still looking out for a celeriac and some gratuitously naked men (though not in the same painting). I’m always happy to do ‘requests’, so do keep them coming! Today, however, rather than gratuitously naked men (to balance up all those objectified women), I’m going to think about men’s legs, or at least, red tights, partly because of the enthusiasm voiced previously for the fish in today’s painting, ‘Tobias and the Angel’ by the Workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (which means, it looks like Verrocchio, but somehow it’s not quite in his style – although that is notoriously difficult to pin down as he had so many brilliant assistants: more of that later).

So why the red tights? The fact is, red tights were THE must-have fashion item for men in the late 15th and early 16th Century in Europe, which gives us a sense of the status of the young man on the right of the painting: he’s pretty well off, and would be recognised as such by any viewer in 15th century Florence, who would have presumed he was the son of a successful businessman. He’s off on a walk with a man wearing a rather fine, and large, pair of wings. I put it that way, just to point out that when we look at paintings, we make assumptions without realising it. You’ve read the title of the painting after all, so you know it’s an angel – and even if you hadn’t read the title you would have assumed it was an angel, because men don’t usually wander around wearing wings. The title also tells us the young man is Tobias – but you could only know that from the painting if you know the story that this is illustrating. So, don’t read the label: you should always look at a painting first, and only read the label later. Let’s look at the details, and work out the assumptions we are making. 

I have assumed they are both male, but most people nowadays would probably say they were very feminine. However angels, in the Catholic Church at least, are only ever male, as they effectively part of the upper echelons of the priesthood (he is wearing something akin to ecclesiastical robes). And only men wore tights, and showed off that much leg. I’ve assumed they are walking – because we can see clearly that they are. Verrocchio (who probably designed the image, even if he didn’t paint it all) has gone so far as to show us how to walk – the angel puts his left leg in front of his right, and Tobias puts his right leg in front of his left, it’s that simple. The little dog is doing the same. If you hadn’t noticed the dog, that’s because, like the couple in the background of Bacon’s ‘Cookmaid’ yesterday (#POTD 3), the dog was painted over the background, and has faded – it is now slightly see-through.

This is not a ghost dog (although this is one of two suggestions I’d have for the theme of ‘Ghost Dogs in Art’). The angel is leading the way: they are walking from right to left, and the angel is in the lead, while Tobias holds onto his arm. Each of them is holding something – the angel has a small, circular container in his right hand, while Tobias holds two things. Tightly curled in his left hand is a scroll, which, if you look at the detail, has the word ‘Ricordo’ written on it. And looped round his forefinger is a string, both ends of which are tied to a fish.

At least, I assume it’s a fish: it could of course be a curiously fish-shaped handbag, in the same way that the man on the left might be wearing a backpack in the shape of wings. But as that seems anachronistic for the 15th century, it is safe to assume that one is an angel, and the other is a fish. Even though it has been slit along the bottom, and is dripping blood, it seems very much alive and wriggling, its scales glistening with moisture and the string pulling on its flesh. It’s so well painted, in fact, with such close and almost scientific attention to the fall of light on the scales, that some art historians have suggested it might have been painted by Verrocchio’s most famous assistant: Leonardo da Vinci. I’m not sure that I agree, but it is a great fish. 

There are many other things we could observe – the way Tobias’s cloak echoes the angel’s wings, for example, or the way the cloak flies out, suggesting that they are walking at great speed (or, more likely, into a wind). But these must wait. What do these observations tell us? Or rather, how are they explained? The painting illustrates the Book of Tobit, which is either in the Bible or in the Apocrypha, depending on which denomination of Christianity you listen to. It tells of Tobit, a good Jewish man who – long story short – became blind. He could not support his family, so sends his son Tobias to collect a debt from distant family members in a far off land. The only problem is that Tobias has never made such a journey before, and so Tobit suggests that he find someone to go with him. On heading out into the town he meets a man called Azarias, who claims to be a distant family member, and says that he’d be happy to accompany him.  Dad agrees with this arrangement (even though he’s never heard of a family member called Azarias), and gives them the IOU from the debtor to take with them – that is, he gives them the record, or ‘Ricordo’, of the debt that is owed – Tobias has it rolled up in his left hand. They set off, accompanied by the pet dog, and walk for miles, get thirsty, get hot, and get sweaty, so they head down to a river to drink and bathe. At this point Tobias is attacked by an enormous fish, so huge it threatens to eat him whole. Somehow, at Azarias’s suggestion, they manage to kill it, whereupon they roast it and eat it, taking care to preserve some of its vital organs ‘for later’.  I’m assuming that’s what is in the small, circular container, which looks a little bit like a pillbox.

Eventually they arrive at their destination, and the relatives are overjoyed to meet them, partly because they are feeling guilty about the outstanding debt, but also because they have a daughter of a marriageable age who would be just right for Tobias. The fact that she has been married six times before, and each time has murdered her husband on her wedding night doesn’t strike them as problematic. Azarias is especially unconcerned. He suggests they sacrifice one of the vital organs, which has the required effect, and the demon that is possessing the bride is driven out and imprisoned in Egypt. The couple then go to bed and sleep. No, honestly, that’s what it says.  They sleep. But they do wake up the following morning overjoyed that they are both still alive. Nevertheless, Tobias cuts short the wedding celebrations so he can get back to Dad. He, and Azarias, and the little dog, head off home. Tobit is happy to see them, and even happier when, at Azarias’s suggestion, Tobias makes the remaining vital organ into a fish paste and applies it to Dad’s eyes. On washing them clean his sight is restored – a miracle! It’s almost, Tobit says while thanking Azarias, as if God has been with them all along the way. At which point, Azarias tells him he’s right, God has indeed been with them all a long the way. He then reveals himself to be none other than the Archangel Raphael, before flying off to heaven, leaving Tobit, Tobias – and, in a wonderful painting by Rembrandt, the little dog – cowering in amazement.

So, everything in the painting is explained by the story. Or rather, everything helps us to know which story is being illustrated, because, as you’ve probably noticed, the artist has made at least two ‘deliberate mistakes’. First of all, if someone walked up to you with an enormous pair of wings and claimed to be a member of your family, wouldn’t you notice? We don’t stop and say ‘a man with wings’ – we skip that stage and go straight to ‘angel’ – so why didn’t Tobias? Well, it’s like Superman (and no, I’m not referring to Tobias’s flying cloak…). Why does NO ONE in Gotham City know that Clark Kent is Superman? He’s only removed his glasses and whipped off his trousers, after all. In the story, though, we need to know they are the same – Clark Kent is Superman in the same way that Azarias is the Archangel Gabriel. We need to know he’s an angel, or we wouldn’t know which story is being represented – and we must assume that Tobias simply cannot see the wings. Next problem: the fish! It’s a lovely fish, but it’s tiny – there’s no way it could eat Tobias alive. But then, if it were big enough to eat him, there would be no space for anything else in the painting. It’s a symbolic fish, and it tells us that this is Tobias. Why do we need to know? Well, without Tobias, this is just an angel. With any other boy, he would be a guardian angel, but with Tobias, this is Raphael. Ernst Gombrich pointed out years ago that these symbols are like Russian dolls, nested inside each other. We know this is Raphael because that is Tobias, and we know that is Tobias, because he has a fish. And a dog. Why the dog? Because it’s in the story – and it’s only mentioned twice: once as they set out and once when they return. It’s a wonderful piece of storytelling, and if you haven’t read the original, you should. Here’s a link to the Revised Standard Version:;version=RSV

But why is Raphael important? The question itself is relevant, because the label on the painting says ‘Tobias and the Angel’ – but, as so often, this is deceptive, because really this is a painting of Raphael, Tobias is only there to identify him. In the same light we wouldn’t say ‘The Lily and the Angel’, or ‘The Scales and the Angel’, we’d say ‘Gabriel’ or ‘Michael’. Raphael claims at the end of the book to be one of the seven named archangels who sit around the throne of God without, annoyingly, naming the other six. We only regularly see two in Western European art – Gabriel and Michael – and Raphael is the third most commonly represented (the others can be seen from time to time, but that’s another story). Because he cured Tobit’s blindness, he was associated with healing, and because he accompanied Tobias on his journey he also was invoked by businessmen whose sons and heirs were making their first business trip – and by the lads themselves. It is for precisely this reason that Tobias is dressed as a young and fashionable Florentine youth. Check out those red tights! One particular painting underlines this connection with the following verse painted at the bottom:

Raphael medicinalis
Mecum sis perpetualis
Et sicut fuisti cum Tobia
Semper mecum sis in via

‘Raphael the healer, be with me always, and as you travelled with Tobias, be with me always on my journey’

We could all do with him now, really.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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