A Didactic Legend in Glass: Netherlandish Silver-Stained Roundels Depicting Scenes from the Book of Tobit
Rachel Masters, Special Collections & Archives Projects Assistant at Loyola University New Orleans and recent Master of Arts graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art, here explores the burst of popularity of the Book of Tobit as the subject of silver-stained roundels during the first two decades of the sixteenth century.
Silver-stained roundels became increasingly popular in the Netherlands during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The primary patrons of these small, affordable glass pieces were the thriving middle classes, who set them into the window apertures of town houses, public buildings (especially guild halls, hospitals and alms houses), and private cells in monasteries. Old Testament narrative scenes represent the largest portion of subjects depicted, and from the surviving evidence (both roundels and drawings for them), four such subjects achieved prominence in the first two decades of the sixteenth century: the history of Joseph in Egypt, Esther, Susanna and the Elders, and the narrative of the Book of Tobit. Bearing in mind that extant roundels cannot represent more than a fraction of the numbers originally produced, and drawing on a sample of seventy-two extant Netherlandish roundels illustrating the Book of Tobit, we know that fourteen scenes from the narrative were depicted: Tobit distributing alms, Tobit asleep (or the blinding of Tobit), God sending the angel Raphael as Tobit and Sarah pray, Tobias introducing the angel to Tobit and Anna, Tobias leaving home, Tobit comforting Anna, Tobias drawing fish from the water, the marriage of Tobias and Sarah, Tobias in bed with Sara, Tobias and Sara leaving Ecbatana, the return of Tobias, the healing of Tobit, the angel leaving Tobit and Tobias, and the death of Tobit. The two most frequently represented scenes are the healing of Tobit’s blindness and Tobias drawing the fish from the water, both illustrated on eleven occasions. These are followed closely by Tobit asleep (or the blinding of Tobit), and the marriage of Sarah and Tobias, which are depicted eight and nine times respectively. Also represented frequently are the scenes of Tobias introducing the angel to Tobit and Anna, and the angel leaving Tobit and Tobias, both of which are found six times.
The majority of the roundels depicting scenes from the Book of Tobit, though executed with varying degrees of success, share compositions or compositional elements derived from a common set of designs that was in circulation. The number of roundels related to them attests to the popularity both of the subject matter and these particular designs. It has been suggested that the designs were drawings (or copies of drawings) created by Hugo van der Goes, who is thought to have created designs for Old Testament subjects and left a great many drawings, designs and unfinished works upon his death in 1482. This supposition has led to the ‘Hugo van der Goes group’ or ‘After the Hugo van der Goes group’ attributions’ being given to many roundels depicting scenes from the Book of Tobit.
The oldest surviving Netherlandish roundel (1480–90) depicting a scene from the Book of Tobit illustrates Tobias pulling a large fish from the River Tigris by its gill, while the angel Raphael accompanied by a dog gives instructions on the right (Fig. 1); on the left in the background, the blind Tobit greets Tobias, Raphael, and the dog upon their return. The roundel, now located in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, appears contemporaneous with a drawing held at Windsor Castle and attributed to the Hugo van der Goes group, Tobias Drawing the Fish from the Water (Fig. 2). Based on the heavy outlines and modelling consisting of short, carefully administered hatch marks, the drawing seems to be a copy of an earlier drawing by Hugo van der Goes. The roundel is very close to the Windsor drawing, with only small differences of background detail. A second drawing housed in the Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden, entitled Raphael Leaves Tobit and Tobias depicts Tobit and Tobias kneeling in prayer as the angel Raphael departs. This drawing appears to stem from the same hand as the Windsor example and to be a composition originating from the same series designed by Hugo van der Goes.
Six later and slightly more stiffly rendered roundels are believed to reflect the compositions of five other lost scenes from the series. The first of these, The Prayer of Tobias and Sarah for their Marriage (Fig. 3), illustrates Tobias and Sarah kneeling in prayer in the foreground; in the left background, Tobias burns the liver of the fish in order to drive away the demon Asmodeus as instructed by the angel Raphael. Three further roundels depict The Marriage of Tobias and Sarah (Fig. 5), The Departure of Tobias and Sarah (Fig. 6), and The Healing of Tobit’s Blindness (Fig. 7). While these three roundels appear to have been executed at a later date (c.1500) and are of lesser quality than the King’s College example, the treatment of drapery and facial types, coupled with the careful organization of figures, suggests that their compositions originate from the Hugo van der Goes group. The Marriage of Tobias and Sarah and The Healing of Tobit’s Blindness retain their original borders with corresponding Dutch biblical texts.
Two further roundels clearly show the influence of the Hugo van der Goes group. Both date to between 1490 and 1500 and are seemingly painted by the same hand, with meticulous stippling and careful etching. The first of the pair, The Blinding of Tobit, actually shows four scenes. In the left background, the first scene pictures Tobias seated at his feast as a servant brings him a message; in the second scene, Tobit moves to the door and learns of the killing of fellow Jews; in the third scene, he buries a body in violation of the king’s law; and lastly, in the foreground, Tobit is depicted resting and subsequently blinded by the feces of a bird. The second roundel, Tobias Drawing the Fish from the Water, reflects the aforementioned Hugo van der Goes group composition; however, the artist executing this roundel provided an additional background scene (Tobias removing the organs of the fish to use later as medicine) and updated the costumes of the figures. Because Tobias Drawing the Fish from the Water clearly owes its composition to an earlier design definitively attributed to the Hugo van der Goes group, the Blinding of Tobit arguably represents a lost composition of the same series.
It seems then that the set of drawings by Hugo van der Goes that provided the designs for roundels would have included (but not been limited to) seven scenes: Tobit asleep (or the blinding of Tobit), Tobias drawing the fish from the water, the marriage of Tobias and Sarah, Tobias and Sarah in prayer for their marriage, the departure of Tobias and Sara, the healing of Tobit’s blindness, and Tobit and Tobias kneeling in prayer as the angel Raphael departs.
In addition to the examples discussed above, a striking number of extant roundels reproduce compositions or borrow compositional elements from the Hugo van der Goes group (Figs 7–9). An illumination in the Mayer van den Bergh Breviary created by Simon Bening, Gerard Horenbout and Jan Provost in Antwerp c.1510 features the aforementioned composition, Tobias Draws the Fish from the Water (Fig. 10), to illustrate Psalm XXVI. The inclusion of this composition in the breviary is an indication that designs for scenes from the Book of Tobit by the Hugo van der Goes group were in circulation during the first half of the sixteenth century.
Visual Depictions of a Didactic Text
Although the Book of Tobit is now one of the less familiar books of the Bible, the non-canonical narrative was well known during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The people of the Netherlands had access to the story primarily through printed editions of Bible, the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, and the Legenda Aurea. The illustrations included within these widely disseminated texts are at least in part responsible for creating the visual tradition of the Book of Tobit. While artists producing roundels do not appear to have copied the woodcut illustrations found in printed editions of the Bible or other religious texts, they often chose to adopt the iconography commonly associated with the narrative.
The Book of Tobit – a tale of love, adventure, conflict and suspense, with a happy ending – provided entertainment and religious guidance. The writings of both pre-Reformation and post-Reformation religious leaders deem the Apocryphal narrative of Tobit (and by association, illustrations of the Book of Tobit) to be useful for the edification of the general population. Prior to the Reformation, the Book of Tobit served as instruction largely on account of the narrative’s emphasis on performing charitable acts, thus bolstering the medieval Church’s doctrine of salvation after death through good works. The acts performed by the primary character in the Book of Tobit and subsequently emphasized in visual depictions of the subject align with the Corporal Acts of Mercy. Conversely, Protestant reformers disapproved of the Catholic doctrine that personal salvation might be achieved through good works; they approved however of performing charitable acts to assist those in need and actively communicated the Golden Rule or ethic of reciprocity. Protestant reformers understood the performance of charitable acts and the helping of those in distress to be acts of justice, since misfortune could happen to anyone. Further, since Protestant reformers considered their neighbour to be an ‘image of God’, performing charitable acts was an outward expression of love of both God and neighbour.
Like their textual counterpart, roundels depicting the story were arguably created as visual teaching mechanisms, most likely, for use within the context of the domestic interior. With its inherently small scale, monochromatic colour scheme, and often circular format, the roundel presented challenges to designers and glass-painters. Despite these obstacles, the roundel could be used as a vehicle for depicting complex compositions, usually by illustrating a large, central scene flanked by one or more smaller yet equally important scenes. Because artists were working within a single field unbroken by leading, a glass-painter could achieve exquisite detail and use visual cues to move the viewer’s eye around the format unhindered. Roundels also often represent a single component of a larger programme (a narrative sequence, one of a typological pair, or a combination of both), allowing the artist to concentrate on particular moments rather than attempting to depict an entire narrative within a single frame.
Examining the extant seventy-two examples of roundels depicting scenes from the Book of Tobit, it appears that designers and glass-painters intentionally created simplified, non-cryptic images to illustrate the legend, and thus, made the didactic nature of the text as explicit as possible. For example, the Book of Tobit describes the angel Raphael as disguised, saying, ‘he found Raphael that was an angel. But he knew not …’ However, the roundels depict Raphael with large wings, making his identity unmistakable and emphasizing divine intervention during tribulations. The artists also took care not to idealize the primary character Tobit. Although he is described within the Book of Tobit as living a righteous, model life, he is depicted as a simply dressed elderly man. Tobit’s humanization allowed viewers to connect to him, encouraging them to follow his example by performing charitable acts and persevering during trying times. Designers and glass-painters even used small background scenes to promote the moral foundations of the Book of Tobit. For instance, although none of the extant roundels depicting scenes from the Book of Tobit place special emphasis on corpses or explicit illustrations of death, Tobit is seen burying a corpse in the background of no fewer than five images, all occurring in compositions also depicting the blinding of Tobit. The inclusion of images of death serves as a memento mori, and reminds the viewer of the Corporal Acts of Mercy, one of which is to bury the dead.
Considering the sheer quantity of roundels depicting scenes from the Book of Tobit, the roughly equal number of times many of the scenes were illustrated in the medium, and the complexity of these highly detailed, multifaceted compositions, the roundels may have constituted parts of extensive narrative cycles intended for domestic interiors. One can imagine the panels occupying the casements of a small room, encircling the viewers, inviting them to examine these compositions with multiple scenes closely, encouraging them to live a righteous life following Tobit’s example, and serving as a daily reminder to persevere during hardship.
The early sixteenth century was a time of great change in the Netherlands, and the Book of Tobit enjoyed approval from both the Catholic Church and Protestant reformers. The emphasis in the text and depictions derived from it on familial relationships was appealing to all members of society, irrespective of age, gender or rank. The then flourishing Netherlandish market for roundels created an ideal environment for the production of scenes from the Book of Tobit, and the affordability and universal appeal of these roundels made them ideal purchases for the middle classes and particularly appropriate for display in a domestic setting.
Federico Botana, ‘The Laity (1215-ca.1380): Introduction’, in Working for the Afterlife: The Works of Mercy in Medieval Italian Art (Mid Eleventh to Late Fourteenth Century), London, 2008, pp. 89–102
Lorne Campbell, ‘Hugo van der Goes’, in The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Schools, London, 1998, p. 240
Harry Gensler, ‘Part II: Religion and History: Christianity’, in Ethics and the Golden Rule, Abingdon/New York, 2013, pp. 49–51
Timothy Husband, Stained Glass before 1700 in American Collections: Silver Stained Roundels and Unipartite Panels, Corpus Vitrearum USA, Checklist IV, Washington DC, 1991, pp. 8–33
Timothy Husband, ‘Diversity of Style and Imagery: about 1480-1520’, in idem, The Luminous Image: Painted Glass Roundels in the Lowlands, 1480-1560, New York, 1995, pp. 68–87
Martin Luther, Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, trans. by Charles A. Hay, Philadelphia, 1892, p. 215
Susie Nash, ‘Products’, in eadem, Northern Renaissance Art, Oxford, 2008, pp. 87–99
1. Husband 1991.
2. This sample represents all published, extant examples created between 1450 and 1550 and currently located in Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. These countries were chosen for their large, documented holdings of Netherlandish silver-stained roundels.
3. Tobit I, 16–17.
4. Tobit II, 9–10.
5. Tobit III, 16–17.
6. Tobit V, 8–9.
7. Tobit V, 16.
8. Tobit V, 17–22.
9. Tobit VI, 2–4.
10. Tobit VII, 13.
11. Tobit VIII, 13.
12. Tobit X, 10–11.
13. Tobit XI, 6, 9–10.
14. Tobit XI, 11–13.
15. Tobit XII, 20–21.
16. Tobit XIV, 11.
17. Nash 2008, Campbell 1998.
18. For a full list of extant examples and correlating images, see the author’s Master of Arts thesis A Didactic Legend in Glass: Netherlandish Silver-Stained Roundels Depicting Scenes from the Book of Tobit, available through the Courtauld Institute of Art Book Library.
19. The correlation is obscure and is possibly inspired by Psalms XXVI, 2: ‘Whilst the wicked draw near against me, to eat my flesh. My enemies that trouble me, have themselves been weakened, and have fallen.’
20. Gregory Nazianzen expressed that Tobit, along with the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, and Judith, were useful for instruction by writing, “I think it necessary to add this, that there are other books besides those which I have enumerated as constituting the Canon, which, however, do not appertain to it; but were proposed by the early Fathers, to be read for the sake of the instruction which they contain.” Centuries later, the Venerable Bede authored an extensive commentary on the Book of Tobit in which he likens Tobias, responsible for healing his blind father, to be a representation of Christ bringing light to the blind people of the Church. Still other religious leaders including Peter Mauritius, Hugo de S. Victore, Richard de S. Victore, and Cardinal Cajetan supported that the Book of Tobit was worthy of being read in church despite its exclusion from the Biblical Canon.
21. Lists were a popular teaching mechanism of the Church and were created to educate a community where literacy was rare and until the Reformation, dominated by clerical Latin.
22. Gensler, 2013, Luther, 1892.
23. Botana 2008.
24. Tobit V, 4–5. 25. Husband 1995.