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The Book Tobit

The book Tobit tells of Tobit son of Tobiah, who lived in Nineveh in Assyria during the Assyrian exile of the Jews. Tobit was born in the land of Israel however. He married in Israel to a woman called Anna and he had a son from her, called Tobias. Then came the banishment to Assyria and Tobit was taken away to Nineveh. Tobit kept to the laws of Moses however.

Tobit came into the favour of King Shalmaneser and was the king’s purveyor. When Shalmaneser died, his son Sennacherib succeeded him. Sennacherib killed many Jews in his rage. Tobit stole their bodies and buried them. A Ninevite told the king what Tobit had done, so Tobit was afraid and fled. All his possessions were confiscated. Sennacherib was killed by his two sons who fled to the mountains and Esarhaddon succeeded as king. The son of Tobit’s brother Anael, a man called Ahikar was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer for the kingdom. Ahikar interceded for Tobit so that he could return to Nineveh. Tobit returned with his wife Ann and his son Tobias.

One day, Tobias found the body of a Jew that had been strangled and the thrown down in the marketplace. Tobit went to fetch the man and buried him during the night. Afterwards, he took a bath and laid down by the wall of the courtyard. He left his face uncovered and sparrows on the wall let hot droppings fall into Tobit’s eyes. This caused white spots to form and after a while Tobit became completely blind.

Sarah was the daughter of Raquel. She lived in Ecbatana of Media and she had married seven times but Asmodeus, the worst of the demons, had killed her husbands. Then she prayed to the God of Israel and the angel Raphael came. Raphael devised a complex scheme to take away the white spots and Tobit’s eyes so that he might see again but Tobit should give Sarah as a bride to Tobias to rid her thereby of Asmodeus. The Book of Tobit relates how Raphael realised this difficult task.

Tobit burying the Dead

Sébastien Bourdon (1616-1671). Musée des Beaux-Arts. Valence. Ca. 1635-1640.

Sébastien bourdon was born in Montpellier in France in 1616. Montpellier was a Protestant town then and in 1622, after disorders directed against the Catholic churches had broken out in the town, King Louis XIII sent his army to bring the town to other feelings. The Bourdon parents sent their son Sébastien to safer places, to Paris, to his uncle. He started to learn to draw in Paris but around 1630 he went to Bordeaux. He engaged in the army, but an officer soon sent him away, urging him to paint instead of giving him over to soldiering. Sébastien bourdon stayed in Paris for a while, and then in 1636 he arrived in Rome. He was a very young man without money and he could only earn himself a living by making the scenes the Romans wanted at that time. He painted mythological scenes, genre scenes, landscapes, and mostly Bamboccio pictures. These themes of the Italian countryside with brigands and country people had been made popular in Rome by the Dutch painter Pieter van Laer. In 1637 already, Bourdon returned to Paris. He was introduced in the wealthy Protestant circles of the town and became well-known. From then on his career developed. Bourdon became one of France’s most famous Baroque painters. In 1848 Sébastien Bourdon became one of the twelve founders of the French Academy in Paris. Other founding members were such eminent painters as Charles Le Brun, Laurent de la Hyre, and Eustache le Sueur. He taught at the French Academy, and gave lectures on the art of painting. In 1652 he went to Stockholm to become a court painter to Queen Christina of Sweden, but in 1654 already he returned to Paris. In 1655 he was appointed the head of the French Academy. With age, his skills of composition became more pronounced, so that his pictures from 1640 on are examples also of academic rigour. Sébastien bourdon may have met Nicolas Poussin in Rome and he certainly studied Poussin’s pictures in the late 1640’s. But he had developed by then also his own style. He died in Paris in 1671.

‘Tobit burying the Dead’ may have been a painting made right after Bourdon’s return to France, dating from between 1637 to the early 1640’s. It still has style elements of the way bourdon painted in Rome and it reminds strongly of his Bamboccio period. Bourdon deliberately applied some structure already, but hesitatingly and not with the discipline he would do so later.

We see a white corpse being buried in a tomb by servants of Tobit. Tobit stands to the left, controlling the scene and the youth standing next to him may be his son Tobias. The corpse that is being lowered to the earth is very white and bourdon used the very white colours to denote his primary scene. The wife of the buried Jew stands also close to the corpse. She is dressed in a long white cloak and she seems in that white-grey, harshly coloured dress almost a marble statue of desperate grief, struck with sudden sadness. Somewhat below we find another patch of white colour on the naked body of another woman, maybe a servant, holding the body of what could be a child. Such is the scene of the burying, the scene of death. Death for Bourdon was implacable, hard, cold, and of the very striking white colour.

Around this central theme, several people move. They work at the burial, as Tobit has told them to come in the night. Sébastien bourdon painted them all in different positions, all active, all looking in various directions, looking at each other, looking at the burial, and aside to Tobit. They hurry and are fearful of what happen if they were found out. But Tobit controls and stands firm, a powerful and commanding man. Bourdon showed in this second scene his skills in depicting action: all figures are inclined, so Bourdon used amply the slanting directions on his figures to indicate movement and the slanting lines intertwine in a chaos of directions, which always represents energy in a picture. The light that falls on the burial scene comes from the upper left, from the direction onto which Tobias looks. Here we may suspect the light of Yahweh, helping Tobit and his servants.

The two scenes together form a horizontal, low band of figures in the frame. Bourdon used here the three fundamental colours of painters: blue, yellow and red, but in broken hues, like he did in his Roman period. Later he would use brighter hues. These are the brighter colours of the picture however, because Bourdon painted above the band of figures a large darker part of a Roman or Greek architecture and a dark sky. Tobit buried Sennacherib’s victims, his kinsmen, at night. So Bourdon painted a night scene. To the right of the frame, Bourdon placed a vase and behind the vase an Egyptian obelisk or pyramid, as well as two curved structures which are tree-trunks. One tree-trunk is broken, and these trunks as well as the cracks in the temple structure may indicate the decaying of Tobit’s town Nineveh, wracked by internecine battles. The tree trunks on the right and the pyramid must balance the temple structure of the left part.

Sébastien Bourdon used a few elements of structured composition in his painting, but by far not as much as in his later periods. The white areas in the picture for instance from a weak triangle that goes from the lower left to the upper right, to the woman in mourning on the right. Bourdon also brought a pyramidal structure in the picture: look at the antique statues in the upper middle. It must represent the god of Nineveh, of the town in which Tobit lived in banishment. From the top of that statue two lines can be considered going down on the left and the right, to form a triangle within which is the burial scene, all the persons engaged immediately in the burial. Bourdon even drew a woman holding a child on her shoulders to continue the line of the statue and to make the connection with the broader area of the bent people lower down. Then to the left of that triangle, Bourdon painted Tobit and Tobias, three people in all. To the right he placed the mourning woman and three other figures. Bourdon had structure in his mind, but he had not yet reached the sophistication of his art in which he could emphasise structure over all other visual elements such as colour, lines and design of the content as well as the background to blend into one coherent visual whole. We regret in this picture the contrast between figures and background, the heaviness in view of that dark background, the strange artifice of the tree-trunks necessary to bring symmetry and the rather weak support of structure in the scene of the figures.

The painting ‘Tobit burying the Dead’ is not one of Sébastien Bourdon’s best pictures. Still, we see an accomplished artist at work. Bourdon painted a scene of people burying a corpse at night, an ominous and terrible sight and he showed especially Tobit’s determination. He stayed true to the Bible scene. He had to draw a night scene and often also Bamboccio scenes are at night or evening, when the thieves come out and when danger lurks, so Bourdon evolved slowly from his early Bamboccio themes to Bible and mythological scenes. We feel that bourdon was discovering the power of structure, but yet not daring to make structure the force that linked his entire picture into one coherent view. He was looking to enhance his picture by reflection the colour areas and the lines in his picture, but he was still young and he needed to work fast.

With this burying theme of Tobit Bourdon may have been making a reference to the entombment of Christ. The corpse that is put into the grave may represent Jesus. The mourning woman in blue and white could be his mother, the Virgin Mary, dressed in pure white. A rich man helped in the burial of Jesus and proposed his own tomb, so that man might be represented by Tobit. Jesus came to abolish the old order so that in the renaissance pictures we often see images of cracked ancient temples appear in the background, like in this picture of Sébastien Bourdon. In early medieval themes appear often two tree trunks: a broken one, representing the old world, and a living tree which is here with Bourdon an organically curved one, representing life in Jesus. Often such scenes of Christ are composed in a setting of Roman temples, and a Roman environment, symbolised by the Roman pyramid of Sextus, like Bourdon drew on the right. When Jesus died the sky darkened suddenly, and Bourdon also painted dark clouds overshadowing the sun, coming from the upper left. So there might indeed be more to discover in Sébastien Bourdon’s painting. Visually however, it is a weaker picture than many of his later works. The ‘Tobit burying the Dead’ remains however a painting that is always interesting to look at, if only to discover the way bourdon drew the various figures in fine colours and chiaroscuro. This painter had great talent; his genius shows better in other paintings. We should not forget that if this picture indeed dates from 1635 to 1640, Bourdon was still in his twenties and learning by himself the elements of design. He would discover them all however, and he would later teach them at the French Academy of Paris. Bourdon was one of the founding fathers of French Academicist painting.

Tobit and Anna with the Goat

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam. 1626.

The subject of Rembrandt’s painting is a short, painful story from the time when Tobit was blind. His wife Anna worked then. She spun wool, wove cloth and sold her work. Her customers paid her and also once gave her a kid for a meal. Tobit heard the animal bleat. He grudged to his wife and reproached her, for the animal might be stolen. He urged her to give it back to its owners. His wife refused however. She told Tobit that it was a rightful present. Tobit did not believe her; he felt ashamed for her and he insisted to give back the kid. But Anne then replied by asking about Tobit’s own alms, his own good works. She asked what he had received in return. Since that was the blindness that afflicted him, Tobit sighed and wept. He was sad and said his lamentations. He regretted all the wrong things Israel had done and asked God to do with him as God wanted. He even begged for death. Then he prayed to be relieved of his blindness.

Rembrandt’s ‘Tobit and Anna with the Kid’ dates from 1626, when the painter was about twenty years old. So the picture must have been one of Rembrandt’s earliest paintings. We recognise an astonishingly accomplished artist in the young painter.

Tobit and Anna are sitting in a Dutch seventeenth century house. The light comes to the scene from a window on the left side of the room. The interiors of Dutch rooms with its not so tall windows were often dark inside, so Rembrandt could already paint his picture in strong contrasts of light and dark, as he would particularly emphasise in his later work. But he showed in ‘Tobit and Anna’ wonderfully bright colours. When he was young Rembrandt made many pictures with a far richer palette of vivid hues, in which he would even apply some blue and green, than in his later work. Thus the orange colours of Tobit’s robe and also part of Anna’s robe are marvellous. It is a rich, splendid, and warm hue and it steels the view very obviously. Rembrandt showed rich diversity of other light colours in other parts of Tobit’s robe, in Anna’s headdress and on her shawl, on the kid, on Tobit’s walking stick that lies on the ground, and also on the faces of the two elder people. We cannot but be amazed at how accomplished such a young painter was in painting these splendid, harmonious and wonderfully sympathetic hues. Rembrandt showed the brighter colours set against the dark interior of the room but even there a basket, a spinning wheel, glass bottles are wonderfully detailed in fine brushstrokes. One might easily do away with the magnificent hues as being picturesque instead of powerfully accentuating the essence of the scene and of the medium that is the frame, but the effect on viewers is strong pleasing and in our opinion not at all a sign of weakness. The young Rembrandt used vivid hues because he was young and had still the enthusiasm of brightness and of newly discovered hues. But he would not develop into a painter concerned with the power of strong, bright colours as primary element of his art. He would be a painter of expression. He would remain a master of colour, but colour he would never again show and use for its own sake.

Rembrandt used light and its absence well already in this painting. He brought the light splendidly on Tobit, thereby emphasising the hues on the prophet as well as on Anna’s head. He painted the kid very finely and like a real master gave to his view almost a tactile experience to the long, soft hair of the kid. He placed however the dog under Tobit in the shadows, showing that he could as well paint figures and animals in the light as in the dark. Rembrandt showed a corner of a small kitchen. The perspective of the ceiling indicates a small part of the room, a corner into which a cupboard and kitchen utensils were placed. Tobit and Anna are in a corner of the room, which quite corresponds to the mental state both Tobit and Anna are in.

The faces of Tobit and Anna are much wrinkled and Rembrandt detailed their traits with ultimate care. Every wrinkle in the face of Anna is painted with complete and exact realism. This is really how a worried, working, old woman, strong and determinate against hardships looked like. Tobit likewise is an old man. Rembrandt shows his helplessness in his face. It is less sunburnt because Tobit was confined to the interior. His face also is wrinkled of the worries of banishment. Rembrandt drew Tobit’s unkempt hair, his balding head, his long white beard and his very old hands. Anna’s hands are as deeply carved as Tobit’s praying hands. But the hands are lively, respectful and as much the true subject of the painting as Tobit and Anna’s faces.

Rembrandt’s picture is just an interior scene. But the young painter knew people already as if he were sixty years old. He painted Anna with an expression of mixed feelings. She seems surprised by Tobit’s reaction to refuse the kid. She is wary, old and tired, exhausted. She has come home panting from holding the kid, at first happy and proud and then disillusioned by Tobit’s reaction. So Rembrandt painted her with an open mouth of surprise, the large eyes of reproach, the bent head and bent shoulders of pleading. She holds the kid, proudly and protecting, as if it were innocence itself. She keeps on to the kid however, telling Tobit over and over again that the kid was not a stolen animal. She knows how much the need the kid, now that Tobit is blind and some extra meat would be so welcome.

Tobit sits in a chair. He wears wonderful, rich, warm clothes, the remnants of better times that are now torn at the arms. It is cold outside. Tobit and Anna wear heavy clothing and Tobit has been warming himself at a small fire in the room. Tobit prays to God, refusing the least sin such as the theft of a kid, even though the household is in want of money. He holds his closed and dead eyes to the heavens, in a way that indicates pleading to God and reproach for Anna. How can his wife bring in a stolen kid? Why has God thrown him in blindness and poverty, what sins did he commit so that he would be now confined to a chair and so that his wife had to accept a stolen kid to survive? How can he refuse the kid to Anna when she stops all arguments by referring to his own alms, and by referring to his helplessness? He can only lament to the skies and only the lamentations can bring him solace.

Rembrandt knew Dutch genre scenes well and he painted such a scene too. We see all the utensils of a kitchen in the background: garlic, a bird cage, a basket, cupboards, large bottles, and a spinning wheel. A loyal dog stayed with Tobit at the fire. Tobit wears simple leather shoes, old and torn, at his feet. Tobit’s wealthy-looking clothes of golden colours are torn. It is the scene of Dutch poverty. But Rembrandt ennobled the scene by referring to a Bible theme and by showing powerfully the psychology of his personages. Anna looks at Tobit and the action at the moment of pleading and pitying is so strong that it links the two figures very strongly. How could a young man of twenty already make such pictures that show so directly emotions of old people and the feelings of the soul, and show Tobit’s and Anna’ psychology so immediately and poignantly? A very intelligent and mature, very sensitive artist was at work on ‘Tobit and Anna’. The genius of Rembrandt, his talent for capturing the essence of human emotions in a scene started with pictures like this.

We are used with Rembrandt to see, perceive visually only, the emotions in his pictures, our attention being unencumbered with other details or even by splendours of colour – even though as we saw in this picture Rembrandt mastered harmony of vivid colours also. With age, Rembrandt seemed to concentrate on the emotions of his personages and to hide in darkness all other details, considered superfluous. Hence his pictures in which just a few features of his figures come out of the dark backgrounds. When one looks at Rembrandt’s early paintings, like the ‘Tobit and Anna’, one must admire the wonderful hues of Rembrandt’s youth. He had all the abilities to become a great colourist and he remained much of that in later periods, but we never saw the wealth of contrasting, bright hues of his young age again. Yet, also in pictures of bright hues one can express feelings subtly and forcefully and that is proved also by ‘Tobit and Anna’. In later paintings, Rembrandt would obsessively go for the essentials of human feelings. The surrounding details were then unnecessary and for Rembrandt in all probability more an impediment to his expression. It is by knowing the young Rembrandt that we appreciate the mature painter.

Rembrandt was still in Leiden when he painted ‘Tobit and Anna’ and he attended in 1620 the faculty of Philosophy of Leiden University. He had gone to the Latin School in his hometown first and he was the eight son of the van Rijn family. It was only in 1622 that he would abandon his studies in Leiden and enter the workshop of Jacob Isaacsz Van Swanenburgh. He stayed with this painter for two years, and then in 1625 for about six months he worked with Pieter Lastman. ‘Tobit and Anna’ was thus probably made while Rembrandt still studied at Leiden University. He was still much an autodidact then in painting, but did he have to learn much in art?

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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