A cold, grey light creeps through an open window into a room that is itself very old – no glass in the window, a heavy wooden shutter, an open fire with an earthenware pot beside it. The light falls onto an old man. He sits facing into the room, his hands clasped, his head lowered, his face almost lost in shadow. This is Tobit; he sits near his wife Anna, who winds wool on a frame. An apocryphal story tells us that Tobit was a good and holy man but that God made him blind to test his faith.
The old couple await the return of their son Tobias, who has gone to collect money owed to Tobit in order to relieve their poverty. After many adventures Tobias returns, bringing a miraculous cure for Tobit’s blindness. Rather than the miracle, Rembrandt has chosen to celebrate the age, patience and faith of the old man and woman while they wait.
Even as a young man, Rembrandt was interested in the depiction of old age and aged people. He painted them as if every etched line, every crooked bone, every little brown mark on every hand were important, badges of their owner’s longevity, experience and wisdom.
In this painting, a cold, grey light creeps through an open window into a room that is itself very old – no glass in the window, a heavy wooden shutter, an open fire. The shadows are deep. There’s just a glint of light on an earthenware pot tipped on its side and on the back and side of an old man sitting by the window. He sits wrapped in a long robe with a fur collar, the ruffled neck of an old shirt cupping his wrinkled cheek and grey beard. His head is bound in a white headdress with a black cap on top. He is very still: his hands are clasped on his lap and his head lowered as if deep in thought. This is Tobit. An apocryphal story tells us that he was a good and holy man, but that God made him blind to test his faith.
Tobit’s wife Anna is closer to us but turned away. She looks down at her hands, busy winding wool on a frame, an occupation that requires great patience. The flames from the fire and her fingers are the only things moving. It is as if the whole room is waiting. The ivy clinging at the window suggests endurance, patience – ‘holding on’.
The old couple are waiting for their son Tobias, who has gone on a long journey with their dog to find money owed to Tobit in order to ease their poverty. Tobias has many adventures, finds a wife and meets the Archangel Raphael, who helps him fight a huge fish. At last he returns home with the money, the wife, and the fish’s entrails, which prove a cure for Tobit’s blindness – as the Archangel promised.
The tale was popular in Rembrandt’s time. Tobit’s faith was honoured and the Archangel Raphael was venerated as the protector of travellers and as a healer. After the return of a son after a long, dangerous journey, a picture of Tobias and his family could be commissioned as a thanksgiving, as Rembrandt’s painting may have been, although rather than the return of someone loved, the sensitive portrayal of Tobit and Anna celebrates old age, faith and patience.
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