Of all the stunning works now on show in the Renaissance exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, a small picture of a boy, his white dog, and a protective angel stands out as my favourite. Tobias and the Archangel Raphael c. 1480–85 is a delightful painting by the Florentine artist Francesco Botticini of a young boy and his pet walking across a picturesque Italian landscape. Undeniably a lively and beautiful painting, it is also a very sweet one. There is something heart-warming about this image of a guardian angel, and Botticini does an excellent job of capturing the moment in a touching manner.
The story of Tobias’ journey appears in the Book of Tobit from the Old Testament of the Bible. His father Tobit sent him on an expedition to collect money from a family member who lives in the faraway town of Media. The voyage was a treacherous one, and Tobias is joined by the archangel Raphael, disguised in human form as Azariah. His protection ensures Tobias’ safe arrival at his destination, accompanied by his pet dog. Although in the biblical story the celestial visitor hides his true identity from Tobias, Botticini depicts him with large wings and a soft gold halo – not a very subtle disguise if you ask me. Raphael’s face is framed by soft curls of hair, and he leads Tobias gently by the hand, eyes cast back as if to check on the young boy. The upturned face of Tobias meets Raphael’s downturned head in a gaze of mutual understanding.
Botticini depicts the angel dressed in a lavish outfit; the bright colours exemplify the artist’s lively and vivid style. In its day this painting would have been even brighter, but as happens with 500-year old works, many of these tones have faded over time and we can only imagine what it would have looked like. We can still, however, sense the painting’s original luminescence in the boldly-coloured tights of Tobias. Coupled with his kneehigh brown boots, this outfit wouldn’t be out of place in a fashion magazine today!
In addition to the fantastic Florentine fashion, one of my favourite features is the animals. They may be easy to miss at first, but certainly offer an interesting visual focus in the painting. The dog, a small white fluffy thing, is very easily mistaken for a lamb – as I did at first. Botticini certainly enjoyed a certain level of artistic license in his depiction. The other animal in the painting is the fish in Tobias’ left hand, which relates to a previous episode in which Tobias was almost swallowed by a fish until Raphael came to his assistance and caught it. Made portable with two straps like a handbag, Tobias carries the fish in his left hand like a prize.
Botticini painted at least seven versions of this scene in his lifetime. The story of Tobias and Raphael was a common theme in Renaissance art, particularly popular with travellers since Raphael was its patron saint. The idea of children’s guardian angels became popular from this story, and even today these ideas linger. It is likely that Botticini painted this particular panel as a commission for the Confraternity of Saint Raphael as a standard, or processional banner. In the days before printing, these banners were painted by hand, and it is wonderful to imagine what they must have looked like carried down the street in religious festival parades. Today however we can enjoy this beautiful painting at the National Gallery of Australia, along with the many others so kindly lent from Bergamo.
Originally published in The Canberra Times – Panorama, February 11, 2012, p 19.