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Tobit healed

The young Tobias gives back Sight to his Father

Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1567). Musée du Louvre – Paris.

When Tobias and Raphael were near Kaserin, opposite Nineveh, Raphael proposed for him and Tobias to go ahead of Sarah. Raphael warned Tobias to take the gall of the fish and the dog followed them. Tobias met his mother and father. He applied the fish’s gall on the eyes of his father, and blew into his eyes. He applied the medicine, pulled away a thin skin from the corners of his father’s eyes with both hands and Tobit was blind no more. All prayed then to the glory of God.

Tobias now told his father everything that had happened on his way to Media and also of his wedding to Sarah. Then Tobit set off to the gates of Nineveh to meet his daughter-in-law and all the people of Nineveh who saw him walking so briskly were astonished. That day there was a great joy in Nineveh and Tobit ordered another wedding feast.

When the wedding feast was over, Tobit told Tobias to pay his companion. But Tobias wondered how he would ever be able to pay back to Azarias all the good his companion had given him. Azarias had brought Tobias back safe, cured his wife, brought the money back, and also cured his father. So Tobias told Azarias to take half of all he had brought back in payment.

Then Azarias revealed himself and told all the good that Tobit had done, like burying the murdered men, and that this had been tests of God. He said he was Raphael, one of the seven angels that stood ever ready to enter the presence of the glory of God. Tobit and Tobias were overwhelmed with awe and they fell on their faces in terror. But the angel told them to not be afraid and to bless God with him. Then all praised God with hymns and thanked him for the wonders he had performed through his angel.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen was born near Antwerp in Brabant, in a village now called Hemiksem – hence his name. Very little is known of his early life, but he was made a master painter by the Antwerp Saint Lukas Guild in 1524. Around 1550 he moved from Brabant to Holland in the Netherlands, to the town of Haarlem. He painted mainly scenes from the Bible, religious scenes, but also genre scenes of proverbs and Dutch intimate life. He had a good sense of humour and his paintings are among the first true genre pictures for which Dutch painting became so famous. Jan sanders had a talented daughter, Catharina von Hemessen, born in Antwerp, and one of the early and best known female painters of Brabant. He taught her in his workshop and she may have become even more famous than her father. She married a musician, Chrétien de Morien and they were both even invited by the Governess of the Netherlands to work at the court of Madrid.

In ‘Tobias gives back Sight to his Father’, Jan van Hemessen depicts the moment at which the young Tobias and his companion, the Archangel Raphael, return from their journey to Media. Tobias brings the gall of the fish that can cure blindness. The angel pointed out the fish to Tobias, and the boy caught it on his journey. Tobias put the gall on a plate and applies some of it the eyes of his father.

Tobias’ mother and his future wife, Sarah, are looking at what happens. It is in this last scene that we recognise the touché of Dutch genre painting in Hemessen’s presentation. Tobias’ mother is a very old woman with a white cap on her head, and Sarah a nice country girl with rather plain features. They look intently, with much curiosity at what happens to Tobit, in expectancy of a miracle. This kind of curiosity, so obvious in the faces of the females, and the direct implication of the bystanders is a recurring image of Dutch genre scenes.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen showed the psychologies of the figures in the scene. We see the poor Tobit, helpless, dressed in long robes, crossing his arms in protection and in devote believing. His wife has to keep his head inclined for Tobias to well be able to bring his fingers and the gall to Tobit. Also Sarah seems to hold and support her future father-in-law. Tobias is not anymore the young, inexperienced youth that started naively, unaware of dangers on the long journey. Tobias has become a hardened lad, adult now. Van Hemessen painted him with strong legs and sinewy muscles gained on the road. Tobias has a sun-burnt face that is not weak but resolute now, with fine and somewhat angular features. At the beginning of the journey Tobias might have been a young boy with round, full features. The boy has toughened into a fine young man and it is with a determined poise, confident in the powers of the fish, that he stands before his father.

Van Hemessen painted the Archangel in a strange way. Raphael accompanied Tobias, but during the journey he was the leader, the more mature companion that advised Tobias all along and on all he had to do: catch a fish that would cure his father, drive out a demon, find a beautiful girl to marry, regain his father’s money. We would have expected to see a mature man, to see Azarias. Van Hemessen painted Raphael however like a boy or even a girl, younger than Tobias. Of course, Raphael is an angel and angels had to be depicted like ordinary people expected angels to look like in van Hemessen’s times, so Raphael is a youth. Raphael has the arms of a man, but the finely-shaped legs of a woman and a face that could be either male or female. On the road, Azarias was a man, but the angel of the Bible story could be interpreted as being an asexual angel, only appearing like a man to Tobias. There is thus some irony in the way van Hemessen depicted the angel.

The angel, young as he or she is, pushes Tobias forward. Tobias might still have had doubts about the curing powers of the gall. Raphael holds his walking staff right behind Tobias and seems to use it as a lever to push Tobias forward. Van Hemessen thus points out that although Tobias is an adult young man, he still remained much the naïve young boy that indeed needed to be driven forward and led by the angel. This kind of narrative and showing of the weaknesses of the characters of the figures in a humorous way, which makes viewers slightly smile before the picture, was very much the mark of Dutch genre painters. Although van Hemessen brought some irony in the right hand scene and some humorous curiosity on the left, these feelings remain subtly represented in the depiction of an otherwise solemn moment. Tobias cures his father and performs a miracle that will change in the happy sense again the life of the family.

Despite the irony and the humour, van Hemessen also showed the earnestness of the Bible story. He introduced an element of monumentality in his picture. Van Hemessen painted Tobias, the angel and also to a lesser extent the other figures in a grand way. Tobias is so tall that he has to bend his head not to touch the upper border of the frame. The angel has to recline his back and lower his/her head to not do the same. Sarah is shown so high in the picture, that she also just touches the upper border. The figures are tall and fill the frame. The story of Tobias and Tobit is one of the most intimate, nice, smooth stories of the bible, intimate, filled with sensibility, consisting of gentle small events that happen to individuals. There is no epic breath in the story of Tobit and Tobias. It is just a nice narrative of incredible but small events in the lives of a few personages that are neither kings nor priests of Israel. Tobias and Tobit are ordinary Jews, strangers in a foreign land but living there happily and well. The story has no effect on the lives of the Jews overall. It is not a story that changes the course of history. Its religious content and its religious messages are scant. It is almost a story to be told at the bedside of children to make them have nice dreams and fall asleep with a happy face. Van Hemessen knew this of course. The Book of Tobit is the most truly genre text of the bible; so it was ideal for a genre painting. Yet, instead of emphasising the genre, intimate aspect or even simply showing the humility of the figures, van Hemessen depicted Tobias and also Tobit as if they were important heroes of the Bible. Tobit and Tobias were no epic heroes. They were only simple, common people, to which a few strange and happy circumstances off ate happened, even if occasioned by an angel. Van Hemessen however seems to state that the small things of life, the small events, the small happiness, the little nice things that happen to common people are heroic, and very worth of painterly interest. That was also the whole program of the Dutch genre painters. In this message lies the essence and justification of Dutch genre painting, which is now considered the hallmark of a large part of Dutch seventeenth century painting. Van Hemessen expresses in his picture the feeling that the simple life is heroic and worth of honour and interest, even in a humble manner.

Van Hemessen painted his scene in rather harsh colours, in which furious red and deep blue dominate. He painted the skies without effects of aerial perspective. He placed Tobias and the angel before a blue and green far landscape, but the figures are so tall that the viewer receives no real feeling of deep space. Al the attention of the viewer remains on the scene of Tobias and the angel. In his composition Van Hemessen did use the two diagonals. Under the right diagonal we find Tobit and the two women, whereas down below the legs of Tobias and of Raphael also follow the direction of the right diagonal. The left diagonal is somewhat indicated by the movement, backwards, of Raphael and his wings. The striking direction is however the vertical position of Tobias, so that the viewer looks first at this static visual area and on Tobias’ noble face. The painting is quite dark, seen as if in a storm, but light falls nicely and almost full horizontally from the right side – in a quite unusual view - on Tobias’ face and legs and on the angel’s arm and face too. It lights up dramatically the old mother’s cap. It would be a long time still for the Baroque period to discover the power of light and dark contrasts, but this painter , Jan sanders van Hemessen, painting around the middle of the sixteenth century, had discovered quite much already of this style.

The Archangel Raphael refuses the Gifts of Tobias

Giovanni Bilivert (1576-1644). Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina – Florence. 1612.

Giovanni Bilivert made a picture of the moment at which Tobias thanks Azarias-Raphael for having helped him – led him – on his travel to Medina. The angel has protected Tobias, gained him a wife, allowed him to bring his father’s fortune safely back home and found the way to cure his father. The angel helped Tobias to drive out a demon from Sarah’s house and Raphael guided Tobias on his journey with such good advice that Tobias has grown up from a young boy to a man, ready to support his father in his old age. The travel was the journey to manhood and Tobias returned to his father’s home capable to live his own life.

Little is know of Giovanni Bilivert or Biliverti, beyond that he worked in Florence for the Medici family of rulers. He was probably of Dutch origins, of the Bijlivert family of the town of Maastricht on the Meuse River. Other artists of that name came to Florence, among them a goldsmith who worked for the Medici and who is well known. Few paintings of Giovanni Bilivert still exist. He may have been a student of Ludovico Cardi called Cigoli (1559-1613). Bilivert worked for the Medici and several of his paintings remained in the Pitti palace of Florence, the later palace of the Medici.

Bilivert produced a painting for the court of the rulers of Florence. His figures are dressed in rich gowns and they have courteous gestures. Tobias kneels before the angel and also Tobit obviously speaks in polite and entreating words. Tobias even grasps the angel’s cloak and he and his father beg in profusion their benevolent saviour to accept a part of the treasure that Tobias could bring back home from Medina. Tobias and Tobit plead, urge in the smoothest and most eloquent phrases, as their body language indicates.

Bilivert painted Tobit in nice blue colours, but of a warm hue. Tobias wears a wealthy robe, a yellow-orange courtly robe, and an ermine collar reserved to princes. Raphael is clad like a Roman soldier, in the traditional way of God’s warrior angels, and not like the traveller Azarias. So Bilivert also showed Azarias in the shape of an angel, and in fact all paintings from the Book of Tobit depict thus Azarias. Yet, Tobias only saw the traveller Azarias until he begged his companion to accept the gifts. Raphael wears a white tunic, a pink robe, a purple cloak. In the background we see Anna and Sarah. Anna’s head is covered, also as is usual in pictures of the story of Tobias. But Sarah is the noble and rich lady of Florence, with elaborate headdress and fine clothes of the latest fashion.

Tobit is not the wise but helpless man like other painters showed him. There could be no images of poor men at the court of the Medici. In Bilivert’s picture Tobit is a powerful mature man with thick black hair and thick black beard. Bilivert’s Tobit has a heavy purse of money in his hand and he is not at all the frail lamenting Jew of Rembrandt but the string master of the palace. His son is a nice youth, dressed with a leather belt and ermine knots at his waist. Images like this were well suited for an old and well established court, which was now certainly more superficial than ever.

Giovanni Bilivert used a simple pyramidal structure for his painting. His image was close to portraiture and the pyramid structure was often used for this kind of pictures. The pyramid is in Raphael and Tobit and to broaden the base Bilivert made Tobit recline towards the angel and he made Tobias kneel somewhat to the side.

Tobit and Tobias were no people that lived at a court. They were Jews banished from their homeland and deported to a city of their enemies and masters. They must have had a hard life in a foreign country. Giovanni Bilivert merely made a nice, professional picture as many common painters could have made for a court and rich commissioner. He did not look beyond the surface of the visual depiction to the feelings of the real people as poignantly narrated and described in the Book of Tobit. The Medici appreciated still great talent; they recognised talent and rewarded it actively. But they were also now in need of many respectable pictures which were in the line of tradition, which conserved the courtly view and which they could use as decoration of their many halls without concern. Bilivert delivered to the Medici rulers a painting of a Bible story without particular message, simply a Bible scene always very acceptable on the wall of a reception room. The commissioners might have heard of the bible story and Bilivert certainly read the text, but the painter showed a scene of wealthy people so that the courtiers could recognise themselves in the picture without afterthought. Tobias hence displays many luxurious jewels, a long chain of pearls, and Tobit is ready to hand over a thick bag of money, of course from behind his back, uncertain, and maybe secretly hoping that the handing over of the money need not happen. A picture like Bilivert’s ‘Raphael refusing Tobias’ gifts’ was also a delicate hint that gifts could be made to the Medici duke for honours and help provided but that the Duke also knew what magnanimity meant.

The painting of Giovanni Bilivert must have pleased the court of Florence. It was a nice, smooth, polite, non-obtrusive picture with a small message, showing only innocent feelings and of course it was a scene of wealthy people that lived in splendour and profusion. Pictures like this could be produced rapidly and easily. Of course, the narrative in pictures like this, professionally nice as they were, did not go deep.

The Archangel Raphael leaves the Family of Tobias

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669). Musée du Louvre – Paris. 1637.

Rembrandt made the ‘Archangel Raphael leaves the Family of Tobias’ in 1637. He was then thirty-one years old, and established since a few years in Amsterdam – since 1631. He had happily married in 1634 Saskia van Uylenburgh, the daughter of a well-to-do arts dealer. He had stared a business as an art-dealer himself in 1636 and he had assembled all kinds of exotic rarities, a collection of the most diverse objects. The only sad event that happened to him was the death at the end of 1635 of his first son Rumbertus, who died a few months after his birth. Rembrandt was already a very accomplished and even admired painter; he had a workshop and students. His wife had money of her own and a bright future could be expected. Rembrandt’s picture of Tobias and the Archangel prophesied more tragic occurrences of the painter’s life. The angel would leave Rembrandt’s family. Rembrandt’s wife would die young. He would go bankrupt and even declared unfit to manage any business of his own. The only constant was his art and that stayed with him until his death. By then he was a broken man.

We see in ‘The Archangel leaves Tobias’ Family’ a double scene. The viewer perceives first the angel because Rembrandt painted him in full light. The angel glows with light and as he breaks the clouds, the sun or a heavenly light falls on the angel. Rembrandt applied a double light. The angel breaks through the heavy clouds towards the light, but light also falls from the upper left on the angel. Raphael flies with spread wings, but he has already departed and we see only his back. Rembrandt did not paint the departing itself, but the moment at which sadness sets in, just after the leaving.

Beneath the angel is Tobias’ family. Tobit has been cured of his blindness so that he bows and kneels deep in gratitude. He prays and holds his folded hands to the earth. No man has ever been shown in such a humble attitude and Rembrandt made this a very emotional scene for the old man. Tobit is a beaten old man. He has a long neck and face, a long beard and in the way he holds his head, in acceptance of fate, we see a person destroyed by that fate. Yet, this is for Tobit also a happy moment because his son has returned safe and well, with all his money, and with a beautiful and rich wife of his own kin. What more could he wish. Still, sometimes after the worries and the fear of bad things that can happen, after the sad events of one’s life, the catharsis of the end of bad times really break a man into tears, when courage is not necessary anymore. The shock of sudden happiness then weighs heavily on a man, as once they would on Rembrandt when he could find peace after many troubles and when he was cared for by his mistress and his son. The scene also shows how ell Rembrandt read the Bible, since the story tells that Tobit and Tobias were overwhelmed with awe when the angel revealed himself, so that they fell on their faces in terror

Tobias also holds his hands in prayer. But he is young and naïve, open to the life of prosperity and happiness that opens for him. He dares to look upwards, to the miracle of his companion turned into a mighty angel of God and it seems he still has not yet well understood what has happened to him. Will he now be a grown-up man and not anymore the young boy that his father sent out?

Behind Tobias and Tobit stand the two women of the family, Tobias’ mother and his future wife Sarah. The women stand behind the men, since the Bible is a man’s epic. The main stories of the Bible, with the exception of very few, are events that happened to me. Men are the primary heroes in the Bible, or the ones on whom fate decides. Women are mostly spectators. So here also they have second role. Yet, when the mean are in ecstatic emotion, the women are stronger, and so is especially Tobias’ mother. Some of the strongest characters of the bible are characters of women. Tobias’ mother towers over her husband and son. She is the real anchor of the picture. It is to her that the departing angel sends his last look. The angel knows what women endure when their husbands go blind and their inexperienced sons are sent on a long, dangerous journey. The angel has come to help Tobit, but mores so Tobias’ mother.

Rembrandt often used only very few colours and he liked the brown ochres modulated with magnificent lead-whites. The ‘Archangel Raphael leaves Tobias’ Family’ is also such a typical Rembrandt picture. We see only the ochre colours finely tuned to the varying shades of light in the picture. The Italian way of depicting strong contrasts of light and dark had found its way north to Amsterdam, and no Dutch or Flemish painter but Rembrandt had found the style so appropriate to his own character and vision of expression. Rembrandt’s pictures often look like sudden views, come at night to a devote believer in the mystic images of the Bible scenes. Rembrandt even painted a dark, undecorated background behind Tobias’ family so that he needed only to use a few lighter tones of brown to show the personages. The light effects of the white robe of the departing angel are marvellous. Rembrandt used the two diagonals in his composition. The lighter areas of the face of Tobit, Tobias and of the angel are along the left diagonal. Under the right diagonal is the entire scene of Tobias’ family. Rembrandt balanced efficiently the darker zone of the left, of Tobias’ family, a larger zone, with the smaller but brighter zone in the upper right, the departing angel Raphael.

Rembrandt’ scenes are often static, but the word ‘static’ is not good enough to characterise his scenes by. We had better speak of ‘stasis’, his scenes fixing personages in the spur of the moment but in such a way that the timeliness of the scene is the general impression evoked inconspicuously in viewers. Rembrandt often presents his figures in movement, but as no other painter he could make the viewer forget the movement of the figures and show a picture that is remarkably at rest. His pictures express the immobility of the idea itself that lies at the basis of a scene. Rembrandt’s picture of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias’ family is not typical in this respect. The flying angel brings an element of dynamic in the picture, such as Rembrandt rarely used. We may call this element typically Baroque and Rembrandt may have experimented a little with movement – to later discard the style element. The lower part of the painting is static however and Rembrandt contrasted this quietness with the energy of the angel flying into the clouds.

The viewer remains at a distance of Rembrandt’s painting. Rembrandt showed the figures in full, so that the viewer can contemplate the whole scene as if he or she were reading the story from the Bible. Rembrandt painted many scenes from the bible and some of them are among his greatest works. The ‘Archangel Raphael leaves Tobias’ Family’ is also such a work of great qualities in composition, treatment of colour and depiction of the action.

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