ANDREA DELLA ROBBIA's TOBIAS AND THE ANGEL
The altarpiece today found in the Museum of Santa Croce in Florence in glazed terracotta
is a work by Andrea della Robbia of c.1460. In the center is an empty tabernacle opening with an arch above in which a bas-relief representation of Saint Bartholomew appears with the knife which is his attribute (he was flayed alive for his Christian beliefs.)
The left side of the altarpiece shows St. Francis receiving the stigmata from a half-figure of Christ surrounded by seraphim in the sky, while Francis' companion, Leo, is seen from behind looking up at the same figure. Above St. Francis' head is a church at the top of a hill, presumably a reference to the location at La Verna where Francis received the wounds in his hands and feet and chest in imitation of Christ's wounds. (On a side note La Verna became an important Franciscan site which was decorated by the Della Robbia family in the 15th century, which might explain why the church in this bas-relief resembles the chapels actually on the site.)
The right side of the altarpiece shows us two figures walking with a dog, one with wings and one holding a fish. The winged figure is the Archangel Raphael and the boy with the fish is Tobias, who caught a fish on his trip with the archangel and took medicine made from the fish innards to cure his father's blindness on the return from his trip (a story in the book of Tobit - see previous blog.) Raphael is holding a box for the
medicine in his right hand.
At the bottom of the altarpiece is a Latin inscription:
SANTE E PATER BARTOLOMEE ORA PRO NOBIS
(Saint and Father Bartholomew, PRAY FOR US.)
What a lot is going on in this altarpiece!
Two name saints, Francis and Bartholomew, and the Archangel Raphael with his protege, Tobias. How can we account for all of these figures in one location in Santa Croce in the middle of the 15th century?
In some altarpieces from this period we might assume that all of these names refer to patrons' names, choices that can be explained by the patrons' own wish to be remembered and protected in the
afterlife by their name saints. Such is certainly the case in the Peruzzi Chapel of Santa Croce where the patron, whose name was Giovanni, John, makes sure he covers all the bases by including in the decoration of that chapel the lives of both saints with that name, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.
In the case of this sculpted bas-relief altarpiece, however, other explanations are in order. St. Francis is here because Santa Croce is a Franciscan church, and, if the altarpiece was originally in the location of the cloister of this Franciscan church, in the Cerchi Chapel, where it appears at present, the
presence of Francis would be understandable.
If, as seems likely, too, this chapel was used for the Confraternity of the Archangel Raphael for its prayers, the presence of Raphael and Tobias, along with the dog and fish, would be appropriate. Francis, Raphael, and Tobias, would all be good models of behavior to exhibit visually for the youth of the parish to follow in a room used for meetings of younger people under the auspices of the Confraternity of Raphael.
But then, what about Bartholomew of the flayed skin? Why is he an "exemplum" for young people
to look to in learning about Christian values and proper behavior and manners?
Bartholomew is given center stage here and called to in the inscription. But his figure is cut in half
and enclosed within an arch as a visual pun for the phrase: San Bartolommeo della Capanna - Saint
Bartholomew of the Tent. Capanna in Italian means covered shelter or manger and was used in the 15th century to refer to the Manger in the Nativity scene, a scene reenacted by the youth in the community of Santa Croce in pageants on feast days. The group which gathered several times annually to present the Christian story was known as "Compagnia di San Bartolommeo detta della Capanna." This confraternity, much like the confraternity of Raphael, met in the Cerchi Chapel in the cloisters of Santa Croce as early as 1439, according to John Henderson, p.450, in his book Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence (1994).
Would that not explain then the presence of all three of these holy figures? The church is dedicated to Francis, a model for young boys, the confraternity of Raphael meets in the room of the altarpiece,
and Raphael is a model for Tobias and other youths. And Bartholomew is the model for another confraternity, the Compagnia di San Bartolommeo detta della Capanna, which puts on plays, either in the chapel room or out in the streets on floats, and whose feast day falls on August 24, a day certain never to be too cold to perform.
For boys growing up in Renaissance Florence, these splendid terracotta dramas presented on the altarpiece now in the Museo di Santa Croce would pronounce visually the moral excitement of leading the good life.
The words would echo the sentiments of the sermons heard in the room and echo the prayers to the holy Apostle who had been willing to martyr himself for his religion. The emphasis in the bas-relief, though,
is not on the horrors of martyrdom, or even of stigmata, but on the companionship of Francis with Leo
and Tobias with Raphael. The boys could see themselves in Tobias, with his dog and fish, and enter vicariously into the life of the Franciscan church through the glad stepping of the boy they see guided by the angel in the Della Robbia sculpture. Under the guidance of Della Robbia, these boys would have found themselves on familiar ground.