Thursday, November 12, 2015

LIPPI's Tobias and the Angel


Tobias and the Angel is a Jewish story which probably dates back to the 3rd century B.C., but it is introduced to readers in fifteenth-century Italy through the Book of Tobit in the Old Testament
(included in the Vulgate Bible and Apochrypha for the Protestant Bible.) Because it is recorded in Greek versions of the Bible, too, it is a story discussed during the Council of Florence in 1439, when the members of the Greek church met with members of the Roman Church for reconciliation. Both Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers agreed that it was a story with ancient roots, a fact confirmed when fragments of it were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1952.
         It is unlikely, however, that the story gets painted in the 15th century only because of the 1439 meeting of the two churches, even though the examples we have in Italy of its visual representation occur after this date. Scholars now believe there are two other reasons for its appeal in 15th-century Florence. But, before we discuss those, let us learn about the story and about the paintings of it.
        The painting seen above is by Filippino Lippi, dated around 1475-80 and now in the Washington, D.C. National Gallery. It shows a young boy, Tobias, with the Angel Raphael, taking a journey with a dog on a road near a river with city towers in the background. Tobias holds a fish on a string and Raphael, who is older than Tobias and has wings, holds a small mortar and pestle in his right hand.

Tobias links his right hand to the left hand of the angel and the angel looks down on Tobias with
We will speak about their feet in a moment, but first let us tell the story that is being painted.
         Tobias, had an old father, Tobit, who was going blind, and he sends Tobias on a journey from Nineveh to Media to retrieve some money owed Tobit. The Angel Raphael disguised as a friend accompanies him on this journey, and on the way, they come upon a fish in the river Tigris; Raphael advises Tobias to catch the fish and after some struggle, he does. The angel then says he must cut up the fish and use parts of the innards to fend off devils and parts to grind up into a medicinal mixture to take back to his father and apply to his eyes. Tobias listens to the angel and upon his return from his journey is able to cure his father's blindness. A dog accompanies both on the trip.
          In this lovely rendition of the story we see the traveling pair cum cane and dead fish. They are dressed in blue robe and tunic and Tobias wears a red mantle typical of Florentine cloth in the 15th century. The tower at the back looks like one of the towers of San Gimignano, and the extension of it in the river like the 15th-century walls of Florence in the Arno River.
The most beautiful section of the painting, though, is at the bottom, in the feet of the figures.
Both the Angel Raphael and Tobias step with weight on the right leg, while lifting up the left leg
in the air in preparation for another step. The feet are gracefully placed and foreshortened so that
the viewer feels in the next moment he/she will see the left feet move forward together and step on the ground in front together. Lippi has caught the motion of the walking mid-way between one step and another and in capturing the apex of the left leg lift, he has forever captured the motion as a whole.We are encouraged to imagine the complete movement by virtue of the synchronized stepping of the feet.
The animation implied in an era before film is Lippi's way of paying homage to his painting master,
Sandro Botticelli, who studied dance steps and probably read treatises of dance masters where each
dance is described, step by step. The angel looks down at Tobias, almost as if he himself were a dance master making sure his ward's dance movement is properly carried out. I do not know of a more beautiful realization of two beings walking in harmony. (Even the dog lifts his left back leg in concert with the human beings.)
People used to think these images were painted in preparation for the journeys made by 15th- century Florentine merchants and their sons as a way of protecting them en route to European trading centers away from Florence. While the notion of a guardian angel is certainly made visible here, and the long journey alluded to in the road, river, and towers in the distance, the propitiatory qualities of the image are more likely to be connected to another feature of 15th-century Florentine merchant life.
           A book put out by Konrad Eisenbichler in 1998 called The Boys of the Archangel Raphael (1411-1785) describes in detail the places and activities where Florentine confraternities dedicated to the Archangel Raphael flourished in just this period. The first of these was connected to the church of Santa Maria Novella
and had a meeting hall with chapel and chapter rooms at the opposite end of the piazza in front of that church (in the building called the Loggia di San Paolo now - see map and photos.) The meeting place for that confraternity is mentioned in the Catasto (Florentine tax list) of 1427.

In these confraternities to Raphael boys were "kept off the streets" and taught prayers, appropriate manners, and given activities, like religious dramas, to keep them occupied and moral. The Angel Raphael was used as the model citizen for these boys to follow as guide; in return Raphael provided them with comfort in prayer and with the confidence that they were looked after by a deified superior being.
           Since the rooms of the Raphael confraternities were decorated with art (Eisenbichler provides inventories of these places), it is possible to imagine our Lippi painting as a decorative element in one of the rooms of one of the branches of the Confraternity in Florence. It is such a small painting, however, (only 32.7 x 23.5 cm  or 12 7/8 x 9 1/4 inches,) that it might well have been a devotional instrument to encourage prayers to the Angel Raphael in a private home. As such, we might look again at the figure of Tobias to see if a portrait or self-portrait is intended by Lippi there. Was Filippino Lippi himself a member of one of the Raphael groups? His father, the painter Filippo Lippi, had died in 1469 when Filippino was 12, just the right age for the boys in the confraternity. Botticelli takes over as his teacher, but could Filippino have found companionship near where Botticelli lived (in Via del Porcellana in Florence), in the Raphael Confraternity of Santa Maria Novella, just around the corner? That Filippino later paints a chapel in Santa Maria Novella may be more than due to patronage.
           For the painting now in Washington, D.C., Filippino Lippi took the image of the guardian angel and transferred to it the image of the dance master, teaching his charge to step in harmony with another being, and in the process, step in harmony with the natural world. The painting of Tobias and the Angel would have served a member of the Raphael Confraternity with a visual representation of how to lead a mission of healing, with a healing angel as guide. The journey painted here, then, would be a metaphor for the journey of life rather than an actual journey or a mythical narrative. The Archangel Raphael as mentor, in Lippi's hands, becomes the beautiful instructor of music, rhythm, and the art of the dance.

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