Pages

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The Virgin with a Fish



Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael (Urbino 1483-1520 Rome) 
The Holy Family with Raphael, Tobias and Saint Jerome, or the Virgin with a Fish
1513-1514
Oil on Wood, transferred to canvas
215 cm x 158 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid


This is one of the most beautiful works by Raphael from his maturity

It is yet another Madonna and Child. But this time the figures on each side are Tobias and the Archangel Raphael on the left, with St Jerome on the right

It was commissioned by Geronimo del Doce for the chapel of Saint Rose of Lima at the Monastery of San Domenico (Casa Maggiore dell'Ordine dei Predicatori) in Naples

This Monastery Church was one of the main Dominican Churches within the order. Indeed St Thomas Aquinas was a Professor at the University and stayed within the Convent

After remaining in situ in Naples for over one hundred years, the Spanish Viceroy of Naples transferred it to Madrid where it still remains

We are fortunate that we still have some of the reparatory studies for the work. One is in the Uffizi and the other is in Edinburgh


Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael (Urbino 1483-1520 Rome) 
Study for the Madonna of the Fish 
1513-1514
Red chalk over traces of black pencil and white lead on white paper, 
26.7 x 26.4 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence



Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael (Urbino 1483-1520 Rome) 
Study for the 'Madonna del Pesce'
circa 1512-1514
Brush & brown wash heightened with white over black chalk on paper 
25.8 x 21.3cm
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

The centrepiece is Madonna and Child. Their gaze and attention are firmly on the two figures on the left: the Archangel and Tobias. It is Tobias who is clutching the fish. Their gazes are beneficent and gentle.

But in this widespread print of the picture by one of Raphael`s followers, Marco da Ravenna  1515 fl - 1527, one gets the distinct impression from the facial expressions that the fish is none too fresh and Mother and Child are not particularly impressed


Print made by Marco da Ravenna (Marco Dente) 1515 fl - 1527
The "Madonna del Pesce"; after Raphael
1517-1520
Engraving 
262 millimetres x : 216 millimetres
The British Museum, London

This is the "Fish" which gives the picture its alternative title

The artist expects us to know the story of Tobias and the Angel in the Book of Tobit

Briefly, young Tobias set out on a journey for his ailing father. St Raphael the Archangel (in disguise) joined him and rescued him from being devoured by a great fish whose gall would miraculously heal Tobias's father of blindness. 

The Hebrew name Raphael signifies ‘medicina Dei’; St Raphael was the patron of doctors. Tobias had the reputation for healing/ 

Waagen was probably right in thinking that the Dominicans had commissioned the picture for sufferers afflicted with eye diseases.

However there are other themes in the Book of Tobit: the duty of tithe-paying,  that of almsgiving, and  that of burying the dead


But there is more


The fish is of course not without significance. Jesus called his apostles fishers of men. Fish thus represent the people called and saved.

The Fish also alludes to baptism, in whose waters men become caught, as fish in the net of the church (Tertullian, De Baptismo I).

In a sacred Greek acrostic known only to the instructed, the word “fish” stood for “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Saviour.” Christ is the Bread of life. Together with the fish, one is reminded of  the New Testament story of loaves and fishes.

The curing of the blind person by means of the paste formed from the fish reminds us of Christ curing the blind man by means of a paste and water




The artist had been Christened "Raphael" after the sainted Archangel. According to Vasari, it was because his father wanted the Archangel to be the protector of his son in his youth. Prior to the cultus of St Aloysius Gonzaga, St Raphael was the protector of youth. 

As a youth, Raphael needed protection. Despite the tears and entreaties of his mother, Raphael was apprenticed at the age of eight to the workshop of Perugino

The feast of St Raphael was the artist`s onomastico, the saint his patron and protector

The fish is of course the sign of Christ. But outside water the fish is lifeless. It needs water. Christ is the water of eternal life. What we see is an allegory of the sacrament of Baptism.

Is the figure of Tobias a depiction of a young Raffaello Sanzio ?


The Book of Tobit and the story of Tobias and the Angel is regarded by some as mere novella.

 In the artist`s day the status of the Book was not entirely settled even although the Council of Florence in 1442 (Session 11, 4 February 1442) had declared it to be one of the deuterocanonical works of the Old Testament. It was only in 1546 (De Canonicis Scripturis, Fourth session,  4 April 1546),  that the Council of Trent made it dogma that the Book was part of the Old Testament canon in response to the views of the Protestant Reformers

In Chapter 12, the Angel reveals the Truth who he is.

He is a messenger of God commanded to give protection and the Truth. Having given physical sight to Tobin, he now gives spiritual sight to Tobin and Tobias. 

"15 I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand and serve before the Glory of the Lord.” ... 
17 But Raphael said to them: “Do not fear; peace be with you! Bless God now and forever. 
18 As for me, when I was with you, I was not acting out of any favour on my part, but by God’s will. So bless God every day; give praise with song... 
20 So now bless the Lord on earth and give thanks to God. Look, I am ascending to the one who sent me. Write down all that has happened to you.” And he ascended."

The Book of Tobit ends with The Canticle of Tobit (Tb 13,1-8)

It is a hymn of praise to God in response to the angel`s command:

"Blessed be God who lives forever,
because his kingship lasts for all ages. 
2 For he afflicts and shows mercy,
casts down to the depths of Hades,
brings up from the great abyss.
What is there that can snatch from his hand? 
3 Give thanks to him, you Israelites, in the presence of the nations,
for though he has scattered you among them, 
4 even there recount his greatness.
Exalt him before every living being,
because he is your Lord, and he is your God,
our Father and God forever and ever! 
5 He will afflict you for your iniquities,
but will have mercy on all of you.
He will gather you from all the nations
among whom you have been scattered. 
6 When you turn back to him with all your heart,
and with all your soul do what is right before him,
Then he will turn to you,
and will hide his face from you no longer. 
Now consider what he has done for you,
and give thanks with full voice.
Bless the Lord of righteousness,
and exalt the King of the ages. 
In the land of my captivity I give thanks,
and declare his power and majesty to a sinful nation. 
According to your heart do what is right before him:
perhaps there will be pardon for you. 
7 As for me, I exalt my God,
my soul exalts the King of heaven,
and rejoices all the days of my life. 
Let all sing praise to his greatness,
8 let all speak and give thanks in Jerusalem."


"The one who speaks these words in the Canticle just recited, is the elderly Tobit of whom the OT gives a brief and edifying story, in the book that is named {in the Latin Vulgate}after his son Tobias {Tobit in the RSV and NAB}. 
In order to understand fully the meaning of this hymn, we must keep in mind the pages of the story that precede it.  
The story is set among the exiled Israelites of Niniveh. The sacred author, writing centuries later, looks to them as an example of brothers and sisters in the faith dispersed among a foreign people and tempted to abandon the traditions of their fathers. 
The portrait of Tobit and of his family is offered as a programme of life.  
Here is the man who, despite everything that happens to him, remains faithful to the norms of the law, and in particular, to the practice of giving alms. He is stricken by misfortune with the onset of poverty and blindness, but his faith never fails.  
God's response was not slow in coming, through the Archangel Raphael, who leads the young Tobias on a risky journey, guiding him into a happy marriage and, in the end, healing his father Tobit from his blindness.  
The message is clear: Those who do good, above all, by opening their hearts to the needs of their neighbours, are pleasing to the Lord, even if they are tried; in the end, they will experience his goodness. ... 
Suffering, even the Cross, has a positive meaning if lived in accord with God's plan 
One can have absolute confidence in God who never abandons his creature.  
Moreover, the words of the hymn lead to another perspective, which attributes a salvific meaning to the situation of suffering, turning the exile into an occasion to praise the works of God: "Praise him, you Israelites, before the Gentiles for though he has scattered you among them, he has shown his greatness even there" (vv. 3-4)". 

And where does St Jerome fit in ?

Geronimo is the Italian form of "Jerome" 

St Jerome was the patron of the commissioner of the work

The figure of St Jerome is the most lifelike of the four figures. Is it a portrait ?

St Jerome holds his Vulgate his great translation of the Scriptures into Latin. He is holding the Word of God. He is gazing at the Angel and Tobias.

St Jerome went to a great deal of trouble in tracking down and being able to translate The Book of Tobit.

 He himself stated that he was not sure that it was part of the Canon. However he went on to say that it was the tradition of the Church that it was and in obedience included it as part of the Canon

See also:  Drum, W. (1912). Tobias. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved September 2, 2012 from New Advent

He is looking at The Old Testament figures across and through Mary and Jesus, the Incarnation of the Word. He is reading and interpreting the Old Testament through the prism of the New Testament. And through the prism of the Old Testament, he is reading and interpreting the New Testament.

In the same way as the Angel revealed his true identity to Tobias and his father and revealed to them the Truth, the Madonna and Child reveal their identity and the Truth and in the case of Christ through Baptism. What we are looking at is the Epiphany.

One is reminded of what St Jerome wrote about The Epiphany:

"The Feast of the Epiphany is called by its Greek name epipháneia, which is the Greek expression for our concept of appearance, or manifestation
This, therefore, is the title given to our Lord and Savior’s manifestation on earth. Even though He had been born of Mary and had already completed thirty years of His life, nevertheless, He was unknown to the world.  
His identity was revealed at the time when He came to the Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptist, and the voice of the Father was heard thundering from heaven: 

This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased (Mt 3:17). 
The Father had proclaimed Him by His voice from the heavens, and the Holy Spirit, settling upon His head in the form of a dove, ordained to make Him known by that revelation, lest people mistake anyone else for the Son of God.  
What is more sublime than His humility, more noble than His belittlement? "
(St Jerome, Homily on The Epiphany)

But the lesson goes further. Mary and Christ are the Eucharist. St Jerome is carrying the Word. 

We recall what St Jerome said about the Eucharist and Scripture:
"“The flesh of the Lord is true food and his blood true drink; this is the true good that is reserved for us in this present life, to nourish ourselves with his flesh and drink his blood, not only in the Eucharist but also in reading sacred Scripture. Indeed, true food and true drink is the word of God which we derive from the Scriptures”:  
Saint Jerome, Commentarius in Ecclesiasten, III: PL 23, 1092A

We see in pictorial form the twin pillars of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist and that the Eucharist in the Mass  is celebrated in communion with the whole Church in heaven and on earth, the living and the dead, and in communion with all the pastors of the Church, 

"1346 The liturgy of the Eucharist unfolds according to a fundamental structure which has been preserved throughout the centuries down to our own day. It displays two great parts that form a fundamental unity:  
- the gathering, the liturgy of the Word, with readings, homily and general intercessions; 
- the liturgy of the Eucharist, with the presentation of the bread and wine, the consecratory thanksgiving, and communion.  
The liturgy of the Word and liturgy of the Eucharist together form "one single act of worship"; The Eucharistic table set for us is the table both of the Word of God and of the Body of the Lord." 
Catechism of the Catholic Church sect 1346


The message of The Book of Tobit contains a practical message: the duty of tithe-paying,  that of almsgiving, and  that of burying the dead

The teaching of St Jerome did not neglect practice. For him it was fundamental.

Pope Benedict on his second catechesis on the life of St Jerome put it this way:

"Obviously, Jerome does not neglect the ethical aspect. Indeed, he often recalls the duty to harmonize one's life with the divine Word, and only by living it does one also find the capacity to understand it.  
This consistency is indispensable for every Christian, and particularly for the preacher, so that his actions may never contradict his discourses nor be an embarrassment to him.  
Thus, he exhorts the priest Nepotian: "May your actions never be unworthy of your words, may it not happen that, when you preach in church, someone might say to himself: "Why does he therefore not act like this?'. How could a teacher, on a full stomach, discuss fasting; even a thief can blame avarice; but in the priest of Christ the mind and words must harmonize" (Ep. 52, 7).  
In another Epistle Jerome repeats: "Even if we possess a splendid doctrine, the person who feels condemned by his own conscience remains disgraced" (Ep. 127, 4).  
Also on the theme of consistency he observes: the Gospel must translate into truly charitable behaviour, because in each human being the Person of Christ himself is present.  
For example, addressing the presbyter Paulinus (who then became Bishop of Nola and a Saint), Jerome counsels: "The true temple of Christ is the soul of the faithful: adorn it and beautify this shrine, place your offerings in it and receive Christ. What is the use of decorating the walls with precious stones if Christ dies of hunger in the person of the poor?" (Ep. 58, 7).  
Jerome concretizes the need "to clothe Christ in the poor, to visit him in the suffering, to nourish him in the hungry, to house him in the homeless" (Ep. 130, 14).  
The love of Christ, nourished with study and meditation, makes us rise above every difficulty: "Let us also love Jesus Christ, always seeking union with him: then even what is difficult will seem easy to us" (Ep. 22, 40).