Raphael accompanied the young Tobias on a journey that he had undertaken to help his father, who had gone blind (Old Testament, Book of Tobit). One day they were resting on the bank of a river when suddenly a huge fish leapt out of the water. Raphael’s advice was to catch the fish and preserve its viscera. The liver and heart of the fish were used during the journey, even before Raphael and Tobias, who had meanwhile married, returned to his father. Here the angel finally revealed the purpose of the last of the fish’s viscera that remained, its gall. With it Tobias healed his father’s blind eyes.
Veneration of Raphael as a guardian angel became established in early Christian times, and the popular theme was in its heyday in the prosperous Florence of the 15th century. Rich merchants donated altarpieces for their sons at an age when the latter were not yet grown but were already undertaking their first commercial travels. In March 1512, the Florentine silk merchant Leonardo di Lorenzo Morelli commissioned this picture for the family chapel of Sta. Lucia in Settimello near Florence.
Almost the entire surface of the panel, which is semicircular at the top, is occupied by Tobias, St. Raphael and St. Leonard, the patron saint of the donor. Morelli himself is kneeling next to the group at the edge of the painting. As he desired, the gentle blue evening sky is opening behind the head of Raphael; Christ bearing his Cross is dynamically portrayed above the group – a dramatic detail that suggests a fundamental stylistic change, as does the expressive coloration: along with his pupils Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, Sarto was one of the first Florentine artists to abandon the principles of the High Renaissance – a calm and balanced composition and a striving for ideal beauty and harmony of coloration.
© Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery, Vienna 2010