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The Journey of Tobias and the Angel

Landscape with the young Tobias

Jan Brueghel I (1568-1625). Sammlungen des Fürsten von Liechtenstein. Vaduz. 1598.

On the road to Media Tobias and the angel camped by the River Tigris. Tobias went to wash his feet, when a great fish leapt out of the water and tried to swallow his foot. The angel said to catch the fish. The boy mastered the fish and pulled it onto the bank. The angel then told to cut the fish open and take out the gall, heart and liver for these had curative properties. He said that when the fish’s heart and liver were burnt, their smoke could be used on a man or woman plagued by an evil spirit. Such a demon would leave for good. The gall could be used as an ointment for anyone with white spots on his eyes. After using it one only had to blow on the spots to cure them.

When they entered Media, the angel Raphael spoke to Tobias. The angel said that in Media lived a man called Raquel, who was a kinsman of Tobit. The angel said that Raquel had a daughter called Sarah who belonged to Tobias before anyone else and that Tobias could claim her father’s inheritance. The angel told that Sarah was thoughtful, courageous and very lovely and that her father loved her dearly. The angel proposed Tobias to marry her. She could not be betrothed to anyone else; that would be asking for death, as prescribed in the Book of Moses. Tobias had heard about the seven previous husbands and about the demon but the angel told him not to worry about that. Tobias could burn the heart and liver of the fish, burn it in the burning incense. The reek would rise and the demon would flee. The angel continued so much to praise Sarah, that Tobias fell in love with her and he understood that Sarah was his sister, a kinswoman of his father’s family.

Tobias and the man called Azarias arrived at Ecbatana and went to the house of Raquel, who was married to Edna. Tobias explained that he was Tobit’s son and since Raquel knew Tobit, Raquel killed a ram from the flock and gave a warm welcome to Tobias and Azarias. They washed, bathed and when they sat down, Tobias asked for the hand of Sarah. Raquel told that he could not refuse since she was given to Tobias by the prescription of the Book of Moses since Tobias was her next of kin. He therefore entrusted his daughter to Tobias. He drew up the marriage contract and gave his daughter as bride to Tobias. Then they began to eat and when that was finished, it seemed time to go to bed. Tobias was taken to the bedroom. He put some of the fish’s heart and liver on the burning incense and the reek of the fish distressed the demon; who fled through the air to Egypt. Raphael pursued him there and strangled him.

Raquel had already prepared a grave for Tobias but in the morning he was astonished to see Tobias still alive and asleep next to Sarah. He then gave to Tobias half of everything he had, gave his daughter to Tobias to take her with him and promised the other half of his possessions to Tobias after his death.

Then Tobias turned to Azarias and asked him to go to Gabael in Rhages with four servants and two camels to get the silver left by his father. He told Raphael to invite Gabael to the wedding feast at Ecbatana. Raphael went to Gabael and Gabael gave all the sacks of silver to Raphael with the seals intact. Gabael came to the wedding feast and he blessed Tobias.

The feasting lasted fourteen days. Tobit and his wife Anna were very worried over Tobias since they saw him not return. They even thought that Tobias might be dead. Tobias suspected the worry of his parents. So after the feast, Tobias bade his leave of Raquel, took Sarah, and left to return to his father.

Jan Brueghel's Picture

Jan Brueghel’s ‘Landscape with the young Tobias’ could not be missed in a series of paintings on the Book of Tobit because it is such an extraordinary painting of very special, fine qualities. It is only a small painting, of merely 26.5 by 35 centimetres but it contains unbelievable detail. Such a painting could only be made on copper. Copper is a fine medium for pictures of great detail. Painting on copper started well into the middle of the sixteenth century in Italy. Sebastiano del Piombo, Giorgio Vasari, Agnolo Bronzino and Alessandro Allori all worked on copper plates. The art was well in use at the court of the German Emperor Rudolph II in Prague, where painters such as Hans von Aachen, Bartholomeus Spranger and Joseph Heinz I painted towards the end of the century on this medium. Somewhat later, Joachim Wtewael of Utrecht painted mythological and erotic scenes on copper in Holland. The Flemish painter Paul Bril and the German Hans Rottenhammer worked often together on copper plates, even when the first was in Rome and the second in Venice. Another German, Adam Elsheimer also painted religious scenes among which his ‘Stoning of Saint Stephen’ is probably the best known. Jan Brueghel I of course worked much on copper and he was in Rome from 1592 to 1594, where he worked together with Paul Bril. Copper was also much appreciated for still-lives of flowers. Roelandt Savery worked thus in Prague and Ambrosius Bosschaert I in Middelburg of Holland, all around the turn of the sixteenth century. Many other painters of the early seventeenth century in Flanders and Holland used the medium, among whom even for one panel the great Rembrandt van Rijn. In this century then also Carlo Saraceni and Guercino worked on copper in Rome and also even Domenichino. But at the end of the seventeenth century the use of this wonderful medium declined rapidly, probably because larger canvases were preferred then by commissioners, whereas it was difficult to obtain large copper plates.

A copper plate is very even and although painter brought an intermediary layer of paint and oil on the metal, often using lead whites, the layers could be very thin so that the paint of the final picture could also be brought in thin layers and in a very fluid manner. The optic properties of the copper then did the rest, making pictures resplendent in colours and brightness. Even the tiniest brushstrokes stuck well and immediately, and the paint remained very bright and visible in each hair-thin stroke. Thus Jan Brueghel could reach such fine detail with few and small brushstrokes. He painted in the ‘Landscape with the young Tobias’ many figures on just a few millimetres of the copper plate. His landscape is one of the finest pictures made on this medium.

Jan Brueghel’s aim was twofold. He painted not only a wonderful landscape but also a procession of people gathering near a river. The two scenes are on either side of the right diagonal of the plate.

In the landscape scene Brueghel painted a river. We see on the right bank a wood, but also an opening in the wood and a few people walking in the grass. Boats bring people from one side of the river to the other. Swans and ducks are in the water there, painted microscopically small. The river disappears in the far, behind a Flemish high house. There the mountains begin to grow. Brueghel painted this part in a bright light. The light falls on the trees and the painter indicated this nicely by colouring the first leaves with yellowish colours among the overall green. The light also plays wonderfully on the water and Brueghel there used all shades of blue to white hues to show the glimmer of the sun on the river. The mountain landscape is imaginary. There are no mountains in Flanders. Brueghel applied also effects of light in the blue mountains, including white impressions of snow. He thereby followed a general feeling that mountains in the distance looked blue; but Brueghel painted them in very light hues, hues that contrast harmoniously with the yellow shimmers of the sun on the trees. The tone of the colours in this part of the picture is bright, soft and cool, to indicate the distance from the main scene, which Brueghel placed on the left side of the frame. His panoramic view is wide and deep. He drew the trees so that they become smaller towards the centre of the frame, towards the point where the river vanishes; the river banks also converge to this point. He thus created a strong sense of perspective and he gave the viewer a feeling of very deep space. Brueghel situated the vanishing point at about the Golden Mean to the right of the length and down the height of the painting, so that the vanishing point is one of the Golden Points of the frame. Brueghel knew all about how to create powerful impressions of space in a viewer through the medium of painting.

The sun stands high in the sky and it is so bright that Brueghel only painted its dazzling white light that gloriously brightens and enlivens the right part of the picture. We remark here also the brilliant palette in colours and colour transitions of the sun, the sky and the clouds. Brueghel again here emphasised the vastness of space by picturing a few birds, in such different positions of flight, that the impression of movement we have of these small animals so high in the sky is just marvellous. Th birds also evoke in the spectator further feelings of the vastness of the cosmos higher up, like the river and the trees evoke the depth of the landscape. We are quite used now to such views, and we know quite well the illusions that paintings can give of space, but such wideness in pictures had not yet be conquered in Italy in the beginning of the seventeenth century so that Brueghel’s intimate pictures of landscapes – as Paul Bril’s – must have been much admired and seen as wonders and novelties.

To the left is an extraordinary scene of people beside the river. Brueghel painted this scene under the right diagonal. He particularly stressed this diagonal for the trees from an outline, until they reach the top left corner of the frame. In this scene, which should lie in the shadows of the high trees, Brueghel used darker tones and colours of higher intensity than in the right part. His trees are of a more pronounced green here. But Brueghel also let the light play in yellow strokes on the myriad of leaves. The shades of green and yellow colour he used are extraordinary in variation and in brilliance of hues. Even here, amidst the trees, he showed a very bright opening in the forest, and in the light of the sun fowl and animals run peacefully in the warmth.

Colours are darker under the trees and on the extreme left side. A crowd has gathered there. This might be a market place because we see a flock of pigs to the left, guarded by a farmer and his dogs. But they are more surprised by the sudden crowd than having come to this place, so Brueghel showed them disappearing towards the left side of the frame. A great variety of people and also animals, dogs and horses, walk about. All people are caught in lively movement. They chat, show each other things of nature, point to the landscape features, greet each other, and walk up to the river. There are men, women and children dressed like farmers, like city dwellers, but most like noblemen.

In the front lower middle for instance, we see a noble woman of a court dressed in a splendid golden robe. She may be accompanied by her sisters, maidservants and her mother. A man behind her points to a small scene to the right side of the picture. And there we see the young Tobias catching a fish in the water with his bare hands. Here also stands, very tiny, the archangel Raphael. In the story of Tobias the archangel has not the appearance of an angel but Jan Brueghel showed him anyhow so in the imaginary scene. We have here not a natural scene but an image of the old, magical Bible story. Brueghel positioned the golden, though small area of the woman in a very conspicuous place of the picture. The golden-yellow dress is also the most striking colour of the picture so that the spectator’s gaze is rapidly drawn to this place. And then of course, the eyes of the viewer follow the pointing arm of the lady’s suitor, to the scene of the fishing Tobias. Brueghel thus also had learnt how to lead the view of spectators where he wanted them to look.

With the group of people on the left bank of the river, Brueghel painted a scene that follows the right diagonal. He painted tens of people, in a lively crowd. The people have com to the river to cross it. The people are elegantly dressed, having come seemingly for no other reason but to be together, to look at nature on a fine, sunny day and to make a boat trip to the other side of the river. The boats are filled with people and on the right bank we see other people, cheerfully welcoming the boats. If the left part of the painting represents the departing from earthly life, the crowd may have gathered on the left to travel the river of life from out of the shadows into the ethereal light of spiritual life on the right part. The river then becomes a phase to pass, like the souls have to pass rivers of Hades in ancient mythology to find peace and light. A dead tree trunk in the lower middle of the picture also indicates this idea. The trunk stands in the left part of the picture, dead and abandoned, with the people, very angular and very strangely protruding in the landscape. The trunk may represent dead life on that side of the river. Brueghel painted ironically a bird –a scavenger? – on top of the trunk, a bad omen.

What then has the scene still to do with Tobias? Tobias and the archangel Raphael fish at the beginning of the complete left part of the picture. The left part starts with Tobias and the angel; they are painted at the right lower corner. They may be the beginning of the whole movement of people, or souls, moving from terrestrial life in the shadows to the spiritual life in God in the lighter right side, like the bible is the beginning of religion and thus of Yahweh and Jesus leading believers to eternal life. This life is peaceful and bucolic, in perfect harmony with a bright nature.

For Brueghel of course, the theme of Tobias was just an occasion to paint a wonderful picture of a panoramic landscape and of a crowd of elegant people, in which he could show his painterly skills to impressive splendour. But the Flemish and Dutch painters of the beginning of the seventeenth century should not be taken too lightly. They painted for an erudite public of wealthy, educated men, for cardinals and noblemen, and often for men that possessed these three qualities at the same time. Such men demanded, and admired only, paintings that had more substance than being merely nice pictures. Painters like Jan Brueghel could only well succeed in this already truly international market is they showed their own intellect, profound knowledge of the Bible and its meanings, and packed a novel and surprising view subtly in wonderful colours, composition and wealth of fine detail. Jan Brueghel was one of the greatest masters of Antwerp in this, and so recognised from Brabant and Flanders to Italy.

Tobias fishing

Gianantonio Guardi (1698-1760) and Francesco Guardi (1712-1793). Church of the Angel Raphael – Venice. Ca. 1750.

In the Chiesa dell’ Angelo Raffaello, the church of the angel Raphael in Venice, is an eighteenth century Baroque organ that has its parapet decorated with seven painted panels with scenes from the Book of Tobit. The pictures were painted by two brothers. The master that received the commission was Gianantonio Guardi and his younger brother Francesco Guardi worked with him. The church dedicated to the angel Raphael is very old, perhaps dating from the seventh or eighth century but its present form dates from the seventeenth. It was fitting that in its interior were pictures from the stories of the Book of Tobit since the Archangel Raphael appears much as the hero of this narrative.

Gianantonio Guardi was born not in Venice but in Vienna, the capital of Austria. His father, Domenico Guardi (1678-1716) probably originated from the Veneto region, but he had moved to Vienna. He married there and returned to Venice around 1700. Although Giovanni Antonio was thus born in Vienna, Francesco was baptised in Venice. Just after Domenico’s return to Venice also a daughter was born and christened Cecilia. She later married Giambattista Tiepolo and with that painter the Guardi’s were among the main masters of Venice’s eighteenth century art of painting. When Francesco died in 1793, his son Giacomo Guardi (1764-1835) inherited the Guardi workshop in Venice and he continued to honour the name of Guardi in Venetian painting.

Little is known of Gianantonio’s life even though he has left over a hundred paintings. He was probably the student of his father. He painted for count Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg from 1730 to 1746 and he was also a well known portrait painter in Venice.

Francesco Guardi studied with his brother. His early work happened in the studio of his brother and he only became really known from the 1760’s on, with his views of Venice, his particular veduti. He became one of the most celebrated artists and painters of Venetian views of the eighteenth century. Francesco married a female painter in 1757, Maria Mathea Pagani (1726-1769) but he never had the success that Canaletto (1697-1768), the other prolific painter of Venetian landscapes, had before him. After his father’s death, Gianantonio may have worked for a while with another famous Venetian painter, Giambattista Pittoni (1687-1767). Another great Venetian veduti painter was Bernardo Belotto (1720-1780). Francesco Guardi was the last of the great Venetian veduti painters. Four years after Francesco Guardi’s death, Napoleon Buonaparte took Venice by arms and ended its republic.

The scenes from the Book of Tobit in the church of the Angelo Raffaele are remarkable because they are so different from other styles of painting. We cannot however speak of a revolution in the art occasioned by the Guardi brothers, because the brothers were not followed in their way of painting. Gianantonio probably invented the new style and Francesco continued it, but then only in a softened and less radical way. Still, the reason why Francesco had relatively little success with his views during his lifetime may be due to his particular and so innovative way of painting, to his particular style.

One of the finest panels of the organ is ‘Tobias Fishing’. In this scene, Tobias sits on the bank of a small river. He is accompanied by the dog that came with him on his journey. The Archangel Raphael stands behind him and points at the fish that will have miraculous powers since with it Tobias would be able to drive away a demon from his future wife Sarah and to cure his blind father. To the left, in a smaller and subsidiary scene, Tobias and Raphael take out parts of the fish. The scenes are simple, nice and common. The interest of the painting is in its new technique of colouring, used for all the panels of the organ.

Gianantonio and Francesco Guardi used spiky brushstrokes, brushstrokes that placed needles of colour and short rays of coloured, sparkling light on the canvas. These give only an impression of the landscape, of the bushes, the tree trunks, the plants, rocks and building. We cannot see any detail of the faces of Tobias and Raphael, but in the scarce delicate areas of colours the viewer recognises intuitively, much more than by analysis, a face. The same technique was applied to the clothes of the two figures. The result is a stunning burst of colours.

The technique of the Guardi’s on the organ of the Chiesa dell’ Angelo Raffaello is not unlike the technique employed much, much later, in the beginning of the twentieth century, when two Russian painters, Natalia Gontcharova and Mikhail Larionov argued that since light is sent in rays, painter could depict these rays in thin shafts of colours. Their technique, called Rayonism, was visually far from what the Guardi’s delivered but some of the same thoughts must lie at the basis of the style of ‘Tobias Fishing’. Francesco Guardi did not continue to paint this way, so credit for the discovery and vision may well have to be given to the enigmatic Gianantonio, who is much less known now than his brother Francesco.

Gianantonio Guardi innovated in the handling of colours and in the technique of how it was brought down on the canvas, but he remained otherwise quite traditional and academic in depiction. That can be recognised in his composition and in the ways he built space in his scene. He painted a series of swamp bushes on the extreme right and indicated with darker colours as well as in size that these are closest to the viewer. He placed the scene of Raphael and Tobias neatly in the centre, but painted the two figures smaller and in brighter hues than the plants of the right. Then, to the left, he showed another scene of the two personages and the dog, smaller still and brighter still, in which shapes are even more difficult to perceive. So the Guardi’s devised three main spatial planes. In the composition, the left scene balances the darker plants of the right. And balance is also honoured in heights because from the left to the right Gianantonio painted a high tree trunk and the extravagant flow of Raphael’s white wing, followed by a high light-green bush and then again the darker plants of the extreme right. Finally, the painters also showed clear but not overly strong aerial perspective in the river and more so in the sky. So, although there are no fleeing hard lines of perspective of architecture or roads, the Guardi’s evoked in the views by means we might call purely organic, strong and deep sense of space in the spectator. The darker colours of the right moreover had to find some balance also on the left, so we see the darker ochre hues and dark greens also on the lower left. Since here the dark tones are lower in the frame, a hint of diagonal movement of view is created from this lower left corner over Tobias to the upper right.

‘Tobias Fishing’ is a sparkling painting and so are the other panels of the life of Tobit and Tobias on the organ of the Angelo Raffaele church in Venice. The new visual expression suited well the new concepts of decoration of the early eighteenth century, the Rococo style. In Rococo, decoration had to be brilliant, bright, light, delightful, inspiring and elevating in vision, very striking in contrasting hues, extravagant in scenes and in added profusion of smaller decorative elements. Gianantonio’s style epitomises Rococo even though his scenes are more intimate than grand.

One must reflect on what might have happened if painters had really taken on fully Gianantonio’s style, taken the new technique serious and developed the style, using it as a point of departure for further experimentation. Then one might have had a much earlier emphasis on the impression of a scene than on its details of narrative, much earlier emphasis on the expressive qualities of colour and new insights into how colour could be used on its won to denote emotions, without the confinement of the line. As it happened, Gianantonio became not famous enough to impose his style; it came too soon. Francesco diluted the representation that was probably discovered by his brother, introducing closer detail and abandoning the sparkling rays. The great brother-in-law of the Guardi’s, Giambattista Tiepolo, occasionally also could use Gianantonio’s style, but he chose to paint still in his own way, which offered a blend of detailed decoration in places and more purely vision, colour –oriented areas in other places. Gianantonio’s style thus did not become a revolutionary innovation. Picturesque detail was asked by the society of Venice and its wealthy commissioners, not the light-bursts of Gianantonio. His style was an innovation, but it built on the ways some painters of Venice had used before him, such as Johann Liss (1595-1630) and Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734) and even Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675-1741). We also sense some of the style in the pictures – the capriccio’s - of a painter that was Gianantonio’s contemporary, Marco Ricci (1676-1730). Marco Ricci also was inspired by the story of Tobias and made paintings on the subject. Gianantonio Guardi really innovated the art of painting to a new extreme but his magnificent style remained personal. It sparkled briefly but disappeared as rapidly as it had come. The cycle of Tobias remained an isolated phenomenon of ideas on painting that would have to mature a hundred years more.

The Bridal Room of Tobias and Sarah

Jan Havickszoon Steen (1625/1626 – 1679). Centraal Museum. Utrecht. Ca. 1661-1662.

The Archangel Raphael enchains the bad Spirit Asmodeus

Jan Havickszoon Steen (1625/1626-1679). Museum Bredius. The Hague. Ca. 1661-1662.

Jan Steen was born in the Dutch town of Leiden. He was the son of a brewer, Havick Steen, and very soon he learned to paint with various masters: with Nicolaus Knüpfer in Utrecht, Adriaen van Ostade in Haarlem, finally with Jan van Goyen in The Hague. He became a member of the Guild of Painters of Leiden in 1648. In 1649 he married van Goyen’s daughter. He had seven or eight children with Jan van Goyen’s daughter. He moved to Delft in 1654, took over a brewery but failed in that business and returned to Leiden in 1656. From 1661 until 1670 he stayed in Haarlem, and then moved to Leiden again where he also sought a license to run a tavern in 1672. His first wife died in 1669, but Jan Steen re-married with a woman called Maria van Egmont and he had two more children. Steen painted then and before to pay the debts of his tavern. He died in his home town of Leiden in 1679, in heavy debt.

Jan Steen epitomises the painting of Dutch genre scenes. He knew breweries and taverns very well, loved their open, generous, cantankerous and humorous atmospheres and he brought these over in many of his pictures. But Steen also had a good talent for finer painting and he is known for excellent portraits, mythological scenes and he painted also on religious themes. He was a master story-teller in pictures, pointing out weak but gentle and humorous sides of Dutch society. Jan Steen was born a Catholic and stayed Catholic in a society dominated by Protestantism.

The two panels we present, one from the Bredius Museum of The Hague and one that is now in Utrecht, were once parts of one and the same painting. The original picture was cut or sawed in two and the right part with the angel Raphael was further cut down in its height. The total scene well documented a theme from the Book of Tobit. In the left part, Tobias and Sarah kneel in prayer before the bed of their bridal chamber, while in the right panel the archangel Raphael burns heart and liver of the fish that Tobias caught to drive out the bad spirit Asmodeus. Asmodeus has become visible already in the form of a small but hideous dragon, and Raphael binds the bad spirit in chains. Soon Raphael will drive the beast away to Egypt.

Jan Steen added a few details. He showed flowers strewn over the nuptial bed, naked putti flying and playing. The dog that accompanied Tobias and Raphael sleeps curled up before the bed. Raphael has set aside his traveller’s cane and his broad pilgrim’s hat, and he is armed since we see a sword hanging at his side. All this is nicely painted, with well-formed figures and smooth colouring. The painter worked with harmonious colours and he gave much attention to the expression of the faces of the figures. Sarah opens her arms in ecstasy. She seems to look at the vision of angels above her bed, which must have been quite another view than with her previous husbands in a room possessed by the devil. Tobias is the fine young man with an earnest and somewhat naïve look. Raphael then is determined and hard at work, intently to enchain the dragon in a corner of the room. We do not have to look for much refinement in composition in this work. Jan Steen simply painted the scenes next to each other.

The painting is a good and typical example of a scene from the Bible used by a Dutch genre painter to tell a story that has erotic undertones and that contains at the same time a moral lesson for its viewers. The scene is a bed scene. Soon the girl and the young man will go to bed. They pray, but Sarah is already in the ecstasy of her night. She looks at the marvels of putti above the bed. They are the symbols of the joy and happiness she expects of marriage. Of course, the young man has no such idealistic visions. He prays because Sarah has ordered him to do so, but since he is a sweet travelling boy he has acquiesced easily and hence kneels next to his future wife. The ecstasy of Sarah is not really his. Raphael enchains the dragon, and Jan Steen symbolises with the beast the danger of Sarah’s and Tobias’ passion, which will be unbridled soon. Thus marriage may bring elation and happiness, or indulgence in sex and heated passion. It is not for nothing that Steen showed the fire under the bad spirit and he shows Raphael enchaining the dragon, as he would urge bride and groom to enchain their passions. Jan Steen knew the passion of the nuptial bed all too well, since he had at least ten children. So the story of Tobias and Raquel was used and diverted by Jan Steen to once more one of his moralising genre scenes. Such bed themes were as popular in the Netherlands as tavern or brothel scenes and for the severe Dutch Protestants the picture had all the more dangerous but certain appeal since it was made by a dissolute Catholic who also exploited a tavern and who was known for painting pictures of dubious content. But Jan Steen must have amused himself a lot with such pictures, and he was a fine painter who could make these panels rapidly.

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