Our large oil panel illustrates several episodes related in the book of Tobit, part of the Old Testament.
The story of Tobit
Tobit, a very pious Jew of the tribe of Naphtali, lived around 722 BC. He was deported by the Assyrians to Nineveh. Although exiled and also an orphan, he was anxious to bury his countrymen deprived of burial. One day, Tobit, tired after having buried the dead, goes home, leans against the wall and falls asleep. During his sleep, a bird drops warm droppings on his eyes, causing inflammation and blindness. He is blind and lives in great poverty. He decides to send his son, called Tobias, to collect a debt in his name from a distant cousin. He pays a young man (Archangel Raphael) who knows the way to accompany his son. On the road the young Tobias is attacked by a fish coming out of the waters of the Tigris, who tries to swallow his foot. At the request of Raphael (who doesn't reveal his identity), Tobie captures this fish in order to remove the gall, heart and liver, useful remedies against demons and diseases of the eyes. Arriving at his relative's home, he meets his daughter Sara, tormented by a demon, Asmodeus, who killed her seven husbands on their wedding night. On the advice of the angel Raphael, Tobias marries Sarah and on their wedding night delivers it from the devil through the smoke of the heart of the fish. In the morning, Sara's father is astonished to find his son-in-law still alive. Realizing that the trial is over, he gives Tobias the money he owes to his father. Tobias and Sara return to Nineveh. With the ingredient from the fish, Raphael shows how to make a cure that makes the sight of Tobit. After healing, the angel reveals his identity and ascends to heaven.
The narrative technique used here makes it possible to illustrate several episodes of a story on the same medium by working perspective and on several levels.
Thus in the center of the foreground we witness the departure of the young Tobias, the farewells of his father, his mother Anne crying and the angel Raphael ready for the road. Then you have to read the painting from left to right. The more we go in depth of composition, the more we go back in time to the left and go ahead to the right. Tobias' father here is shown burying the bodies of his compatriots. Then in the background the old man is dozing against the wall after grueling work, his shovel at his side and his dog lying at his feet. This is the moment when a black bird nestled in the vault will drop the dung on Tobie's eyes making him blind . After the central episode of departure; we follow the story to the right, where the young Tobias is about to extract from the captured fish entrails requested by the angel Raphael. Further in the third plane, the angel and Tobias cross a bridge approaching the city where his parent lives. Then we find ourselves in the middle distance: a castle rises and a banquet is on. This scene no doubt illustrates the marriage of Tobias with Sarah, following the story to the left we see camels and several figures from Tobias with his wife and his return to Nineveh. The story ends with the last shot on the left: Tobias, his father and mother watch the revelation of Raphael and prostrate themselves in dread as the angel rises to the heavens.
In this way the story forms a loop, begins with the left in the background, makes a circle and ends with the third plane on the left.
Oil on panel, attributed to the Master of the Prodigal Son, Antwerp, circa 1560.
Dimensions: h. 76 cm, l. 107 cm, with gilt wood frame: h. 89 cm, l. 120 cm.
Two almost identical paintings contribute to attribute our painting to the Master of Prodigal Son
The story of Tobias, musée Dobrée de Nantes, France
The story of Tobias, Master of the Prodigal Son, Bonhams, London, 8 december 2016 auction, lot n 28.
Master of the Prodigal Son’, who worked in Antwerp between 1530 – 1560 and seems to have had quite an extensive workshop. He was named after his most famous work, “The return of the prodigal son”, which now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Although it is not known who the artist was, he is counted among the great masters of Flemish sixteenth-century mannerism, being featured in museums worldwide.