Francesco BOTTICINI | Tobias and the Archangel Raphael [Tobiolo e san Raffaele Arcangelo]

Florence 1446 – 1498

Tobias and the Archangel Raphael [Tobiolo e san Raffaele Arcangelo] c.1480-85
tempera on wood panel
51.8 (h) x 38.6 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giovanni Morelli 1891

Francesco Botticini depicts a Bible story from the Book of Tobit in the Old Testatment Apocrypha. Tobit, a devout Jewish man from Nineveh, who was blind and had fallen on hard times, sent his son Tobias to collect a debt of ten talents of silver from a family member who lived in the city of Media. Raphael, one of the seven Archangels, accompanied the boy, masquerading as a relative named Azariah. Although Raphael hid his identity from Tobias, artists usually portray him with overly large Archangel’s wings and a halo. Botticini paints Raphael with spreading blue wings and rows of delicate golden dots above his curls. Tobias is shown as a fair-haired youth with delicate golden rays emanating from his entire head. Raphael leads him by the hand, although their elegant fingertips only just touch. Through this story Raphael was inextricably tied to travel, hence this slow procession, the fluid, gentle movement of the two figures through the landscape.

During his career Botticini painted at least seven versions of this story, which was popular with merchants and travellers, particularly in late fifteenth-century Florence. This rendition of the tale was most likely commissioned by the Confraternità di San Raffaele [Confraternity of Saint Raphael] in Florence, to serve as a standard—a wooden banner attached to a pole, which was carried in procession. The popularity of the story led to the late Renaissance idea of angelo custodes [guardian angels] who accompany every believer. From the sixteenth century similar images were common, though without the fish or dog represented here, and often Tobias is replaced with much younger children.

Tobias is accompanied by his small white dog, sniffing at the ground alongside Raphael. While dogs are rarely mentioned as human companions in biblical stories, by the Renaissance period they had become a symbol of fidelity. Tobias holds a trussed fish. In one episode he was almost swallowed by a fish while bathing, but under instruction from the Archangel he caught it, and its heart, liver and gall were extracted. Raphael is shown holding the gall in the small box in his right hand.[1] Although the landscape is Italian in style, the river that winds into the distance probably represents the River Tigris of the story.

Botticini was known for his use of bright colours, seen here in the bold vermilion red of the stockings. Other colours have faded over time: the green of the landscape was once more verdant, the pink of Raphael’s tunic and Tobias’ cape more vibrant, and the blue of Raphael’s cape and wings much brighter. Botticini’s skilful modelling of the figures—especially the upturned face of the boy, the gently downward tilting of Raphael’s head and their elongated fingers—was strongly affected by the style and technique of Botticelli.[2] The influence of Andrea del Verrocchio is also clear in the details of the folds and drapery.[3]

Simeran Maxwell

[1] The heart and liver of the fish were later to be used by Tobias to kill demons haunting his future bride Sara, while the gall was taken back to his father to cure his blindness. Saint Raphael also became the patron saint of healing.

[2] Sandro Botticelli (1444/1445–1510).

[3] Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488).