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
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
The boy, the fish, and the pilgrim's gear 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.
Raphael's hair is customarily blond or dark blond. (An exception is an image Strozzi painted in Venice, which gives him hair of "Venetian red.") When he is not dressed as a pilgrim he may wear a belted and gathered overtunic with or without a flowing mantle. He will always have wings.
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 and the inscription Medicina Dei on this statue in a Venetian church.
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, 2019-12-14.