The blind old man Tobit, a merchant and devout Jew, sent his son, Tobias, on a long journey to collect a debt. God sent the Archangel Raphael – the winged figure on the left of the scene – to accompany Tobias and his dog.
Tobias carries a fish that he has gutted; Raphael holds its organs in a little box, explaining they could be used as ointment to cure blindness. The fish is painted like a minute still life, the scales reflecting the light like shining armour. It has been suggested that Verrocchio’s pupil Leonardo may have painted the fish and the dog.
Tobias and Raphael’s journey to Media was very popular in the late fifteenth century when devotion to the Archangel, known as Saint Raphael, was promoted by a number of confraternities dedicated to him. The story culminates with Tobias’s return home where he used the fish organs to cure his father.
This picture tells a story told in the biblical book of Tobit (which is regarded as apocryphal by Jews and Protestants). The blind old man Tobit, a merchant and devout Jew, sent his son Tobias to the country of Media, near Assyria, to collect a debt. The family were exiles from Israel, living in Assyria. God sent the Archangel Raphael – the winged figure on the left of the scene – to accompany Tobias and his dog. Although he is shown here with wings, according to the text Raphael disguised himself as one of Tobias’s relatives.
Tobias holds receipt of the debt, labelled ‘ricordo’, in one hand and a freshly caught and gutted fish in the other – if you look closely, you‘ll see the red line of blood where its stomach has been slit. Raphael had instructed Tobias to catch and gut the fish, keeping its heart, liver and gall. Tobias gazes at the angel as though listening intently: according to the text, Raphael explained that these organs could be used as ointment to cure blindness and be burnt to drive away evil spirits. He holds the precious organs in a little box.
While on their journey the pair visited Tobias’s cousin, Sarah. She had married seven times, but each time a demon had killed her husband before the wedding night. Tobias decided to marry her and end the curse. On the wedding night he burnt the organs which, as Raphael had foretold, drove the demon away. The book culminates with Tobias’s return home, where he took Raphael’s advice and cured his father’s blindness. The artist expresses the figures’ momentum by painting their draperies rippling in the wind behind them.
The quality of this picture ranges dramatically. Most of it seems to have been painted by an unknown member of Verrocchio’s large workshop. For example, both figures seem to have the exact same left hand, probably copied exactly from a model book. The fish, however, is like a minute still life, its scales reflecting the light like shining armour; it appears to be the result of very close observation. It has been suggested that Verrocchio’s pupil Leonardo may have painted the fish and the dog, which seem to have been added at the last minute – if you look closely you can see how the grass and shrubs behind show through the fur and scales.
Tobias and Raphael’s journey to Media was very popular in the late fifteenth century when devotion to the Archangel, known as Saint Raphael, was promoted by a number of confraternities dedicated to him. He became known as the patron saint of healers and travellers. Many rich Florentines, who might have commissioned such works, shared Tobit’s profession of merchant – it’s possible that an association with the charitable, honest and pious Tobit was desirable. The moral message could be disguised in the appealing imagery of a young man, an angel and a dog crossing a vast landscape.
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