This scene comes from the apocryphal Book of Tobit. Old and blind, Tobit had sent his son Tobias on a long journey to collect a debt on his behalf. Here, Tobias drags an enormous fish across the ground. He is watched closely by the Archangel Raphael, who had instructed the boy to catch a fish, the organs of which could be used to restore Tobit’s sight.
The picture is a copy after an original by Elsheimer known as the ‘The Large Tobias’ (there is a small version by the artist in Frankfurt) and was probably made in the mid-seventeenth century. The large tree on the right has been identified as a eucalyptus, which at the time only grew in its native Australia. Its inclusion here may be explained by Adam Elsheimer’s friendship with the botanist Dr Johann Faber, who, like Elsheimer, was living in Rome when the original version of the picture was made. Faber may have been the painting’s patron, or just provided its botanical references.
This scene comes from the Book of Tobit, which is apocryphal in all Christian traditions except the Roman Catholic Church. Old and blind, Tobit had sent his son Tobias on a long journey to collect a debt on his behalf. Disguised as a man, the Archangel Raphael – shown here with his large wings – joined the youth as his protector. Tobias is shown dragging an enormous fish across the ground, watched closely by Raphael. The angel had instructed the boy to catch a fish, the organs of which could be used to cast away a demon and restore Tobit’s sight. The huge fish clearly resisted being caught, injuring Tobias‘ arm, which is bound in a sling, in the process.
Our picture is one of several copies of Adam Elsheimer’s original, now lost, which is known as the ’The Large Tobias‘ (there is a small version by the artist in Frankfurt). The copyist used copper, Elsheimer’s favoured support, for this version, and the plate is engraved with a coat of arms. The most faithful reproduction of the original is likely to be the engraving by the Flemish artist Hendrick Goudt, who owned the original from 1611. A version in the National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen, is closer in detail to the engraving; ours dates to a slightly later period, probably the mid-seventeenth century, at least 50 years after the original was made.
This scene gave the artist a reason to paint a rich variety of flora as well as a range of landscape views. A valley dotted with pasture and woods opens up on to a view of distant mountains. The view is partially covered by a leafy branch growing through the dense foliage of an exotic tree, which has the broad delicate flowers of a eucalyptus. The tree is one of the most unusual features of the painting as it only grew in its native Australia at the time. Its inclusion here may be explained by Elsheimer’s friendship with the botanist Dr Johann Faber, who, like Elsheimer, was living in Rome when the original version of this picture was made. The first known European landing in Australia was in 1606 and Faber may have learned about the exotic tree through his network of contacts. He may have been the painting’s patron or just provided its botanical references. The eucalyptus tree, like the poppies blocking Tobias’ path, had a medicinal use; their inclusion might refer to the healing powers of the fish.
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