This moody and evocative landscape is more than just a simple pastoral scene. The presence of the angel and the youth in the foreground is a clear sign that it represents the story of Tobias, from the Book of Tobit.
Tobit, who was blind, asked his son Tobias to go on a journey to collect a debt. He was escorted by the Archangel Raphael, who disguised his true identity, and by his dog. As Tobias crossed the River Tigris he was attacked by a fish. Raphael helped him catch it, instructing him to save the heart, liver and gall bladder. When Tobias returned home, Raphael told him to rub his father’s eyes with the gall. The old man’s sight was restored and Raphael revealed his true identity.
This picture almost certainly depicts Tobias carrying the fish under his arm, but the detail is unclear – it could just possibly be his dog, in which case this would then represent the moment just before he is attacked by the fish.
If it weren’t for the angel spreading his wings, just left of centre, this moody and evocative landscape might seem to be no more than a simple pastoral scene. Against a background of rolling countryside, dark forbidding forest and the dappled reflections on the river, a peasant, probably a shepherd, sits by a rickety fence playing a pipe. In the distance, two tiny figures are walking down the path towards the cottage tucked around the corner.
Strangely, the shepherd seems oblivious to the miraculous scene in the foreground where an angel, his white gown reflecting in a patch of sunlight, is guiding a youth across the river. But the shepherd’s nonchalance isn’t surprising: while the angel’s heavenly attributes may be visible to us, to the shepherd and the youth, he looks like an ordinary mortal.
We know this because the presence of the angel and the youth is a clear sign that this represents a scene from the story of Tobias. The source is the Book of Tobit, which is considered to be part of the Bible by Roman Catholics but is not included in Protestant versions. So this painting was probably made for a Catholic client while the artist was in Antwerp between 1635 and 1644. The story itself is quite complicated, but the main elements are clear and were very familiar to a seventeenth-century audience.
Tobit was blind and so asked his son Tobias to go on a journey to collect a debt on his behalf. He took his dog with him and was escorted by the Archangel Raphael, who disguised his true identity. They set on their way, and as Tobias crossed the River Tigris he was attacked by a fish. Raphael rescued him and then helped him catch the fish, instructing him to save the heart, liver and gall bladder. When Tobias finally returned home, Raphael told him to rub his father’s eyes with the gall. The old man’s sight was restored and Raphael revealed his true identity.
In this painting, it’s hard to be sure which moment the artist has chosen to depict. Clearly Tobias, guided by Raphael, has just started stepping out across the river. But this is not a painting of fine details – the brushstrokes are bold and suggestive. Tobias is carrying something under his arm, but it is hard to make it out. Almost certainly it is the fish, which normally features in paintings depicting the story. But it could just possibly be his dog, in which case this would then represent the moment just before he is attacked by the fish, which is an unusual moment for an artist to choose.
The painting is not signed but is considered to be by Jan Lievens – who had the same teacher as Rembrandt and was later influenced by Rubens – partly because of similarities which have been detected with the landscape in the background of Lievens’s Self Portrait.
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