St. Raphael the Archangel and Tobias: The Iconography

The feast of St. Raphael the Archangel, whose dignity and benefits are celebrated in the holy book of Tobias. Roman Martyrology for October 24

If you see an angel with a fish, that is St. Raphael the Archangel. If he is accompanied by a young boy, the boy will have the fish (example). Sometimes Raphael will have pilgrim's garb and/or a walking staff with gourd, as at right. The fish is such a familiar attribute that one church in Mexico that had two St. Michael santos converted one of them to a St. Raphael by simply hanging a fish from his right hand (see photograph).

The boy, the fish, and the pilgrim things all refer to Raphael's role in the deuterocanonical Liber Tobiae. Posing as a human, he offers to guide Tobias on his journey to Media to collect a debt for his father, the blind Tobit (image). On the way, Raphael has Tobias gut a fish and preserve the heart, liver, and gall. On their return, he has Tobias rub the gall on his father's eyes, which cures the blindness, as at right.

When Raphael is not dressed as a pilgrim he wears the type of garments associated with angels, usually a flowing mantle over a loose tunic (example), sometimes with a belted and gathered overtunic as well (example), sometimes with just the tunic and overtunic (example).

In the East images of Raphael generally dispense with the fish. Earlier mosaics usually put him and the other archangels in garb appropriate to a Byzantine courtier (as at Monreale and Cefalù in Sicily. (Compare the archangels Michael and Gabriel in this mosaic in Poreč, Croatia).

Raphael's name means "God has healed" or "God's medicine." Accordingly we see a caduceus in one stained glass from the early 20th century. In another from the 18th a small pouch, perhaps for medicaments, hangs from his neck.

In the story the travelers are accompanied by one of Tobit's dogs. The dog is included in the second picture at right and in the third picture, a sculpture from St. Mark's, Venice.

But the greater significance of the sculpture lies in the three figures in fire below the earth on which our heroes stand. I have seen a similar scene in a painting in Venice's San Raffaelo: The angel guides Tobias while souls in fire look up at him as if to a guide of their own. In medieval allegoresis, the curing of Tobit by Raphael and Tobias signifies the salvific mission of Christ to the world and in particular to those who had been faithful during Old Testament times.1

In scripture curing Tobit is only half of Raphael's mission. A young woman in Media named Sara has had seven wedding nights. In each of them the bridegroom was slain by the demon Asmodeus. While they are in Media Raphael arranges for Tobias to be the eighth bridegroom and tells him to burn the fish's heart and liver for incense on the wedding night. Fearing the smoke, Asmodeus flees to Egypt, where Raphael pursues and binds him hand and foot. After a blessed wedding night Tobias takes his bride home to his father. This part of the story is less frequently pictured, but I have found one stained glass where the couple are found sleeping peacefully the next morning, and there is an interesting image where Raphael is flanked by Tobias and Sara, who each hold one end of a white cord signifying their union.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2017-01-27.

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Santo of Raphael dressed as a traveler with a walking staff in the right hand and a fish in the left (See description page)


Tobias Renews His Father's Eyesight, 18th century (See description page)


Raphael and Tobias with military figures and souls in the underworld (See description page)

MORE IMAGES

  • 1826: Statuette in San Raffaelo Church, Venice.

DATES

  • Raphael's feast day was October 24, but in the 20th-century reforms it was combined with St. Michael's on September 29.

VARIANT TEXTS

  • In compiling the Latin Vulgate Jerome translated the Liber Tobiae from a version of the Aramaic original, which is now lost. The Aramaic was also translated into Greek in ancient times, and modern Catholic Bibles follow the Greek texts, which are different in some details from Jerome's. (For example, all texts have the dog leaving with the travelers, but only in the Vulgate does it return with them, running ahead and "joyfully wagging its tail like an advance messenger.")2

NAMES

  • On this page I have given the names used in the Vulgate to all the characters except the father. He is Tobias in the Latin, but to avoid confusion with the son I have followed modern translations in calling him Tobit.
  • In the modern translations Sara and the young Tobias are Sarah and Tobiah, and the book is the Book of Tobit.

NOTES

1 See Glossa Ordinaria, Migne vol. 113, col. 725-32, and especially col. 725 on Liber Tobiae 1:2 (Tobiae captivitas humani generis captivitatem designat, "The captivity of Tobit signifies the captivity of the human race") and col. 728 on Liber Tobiae 5:10 (Apparuit angelus Tobiae et socium se praebuit et Filius Dei hominem assumpsit, "The angel appeared to Tobias and took him as a companion, as the Son of God took on humanity.") Similar interpretations are in pseudo-Bede's Interpretatio in Librum Tobiae columns 923, 926, et passim.

2 Catholic Study Bible, 537. The Jerusalem Bible, 601. Liber Tobiae 11:9. The dog's joy is important in medieval allegoresis, where it signifies the delight of theologians in contemplating mankind's salvation. See pseudo-Bede, col. 933; Glossa Ordinaria, Migne vol. 113, col. 931.