The Story of the Tobit Tapestries

Seven dead husbands, a blind man, a magic fish and a guardian angel are just a few of the interesting characters in the Biblical book of Tobit, which is part of the apocrypha.  The apocrypha is made up of 17 books accepted as Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church, but not by the Protestant church.  

The Winnipeg Art Gallery hangs a set of beautiful wool and silk tapestries in its foyer every Christmas. They tell the story of the Book of Tobit.  The tapestries were commissioned by King Henry VIII for his manor house Bisham Abbey. They were designed by the famous Flemish artist Bernard van Orley. Bisham Abbey was given to King Henry’s wife Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement. 

Blind Tobit by Rembrandt

The hero of the story in the tapestries is a man named Tobit who lives in Nineveh. Tobit is an Israelite who has been deported to Nineveh by the Assyrians. He is married to a woman named Anna and they have a son Tobias. Tobit remains faithful to his religious beliefs and takes it upon himself to provide proper Jewish burials for his fellow Israelites killed by the Assyrian king. This angers the king and he takes away all of Tobit’s goods and property and sends him into exile.  Tobit is sleeping out in the open when droppings from some birds fall into his eyes and he is blinded. 

Tobit and Anna with A Goat by Rembrandt

With her blind husband unable to work Anna hires herself out as a housekeeper and her employers give her a goat as a bonus for her diligence. When she returns to her husband with the goat Tobit accuses her of stealing it and she loses her temper with him. Poor Tobit ! He is penniless, blind and has a wife who is angry at him. Tobit wishes he was dead.

Raphael and Tobias by Andrea del Verrocchio

To try to improve his family’s situation Tobit decides to send his son Tobias to the country of Media to collect some money he has deposited there for safe keeping.  The angel Raphael in the guise of a relative named Azariah volunteers to go along to protect Tobias on his journey. 

Tobias and Raphael and the Fish

While on the journey Tobias is washing his feet in the Tigris River and is attacked by a fish who tries to swallow his foot. Raphael orders Tobias to catch the fish and remove its heart, liver and gall bladder and store the organs in a special container. Tobias obeys. 

In Media lives a woman named Sarah who has been a widow seven times. On her wedding nights each of her husbands is abducted and killed by a demon. Tobias falls in love with Sarah and marries her. Everyone assumes he will die on his wedding night too.

The Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah by Pieter Lastman

Raphael tells Tobias to burn the liver and heart of the fish on his wedding night and it will drive the demon who has killed Sarah’s other husbands away. Tobias does as Raphael says and the demon is banished to Egypt.

Tobias Heals His Father by Jacques Blanchard

Tobias returns to Nineveh with his new wife Sarah and his father’s money. Raphael tells Tobias to use the gall bladder of the fish to make a medicine to put on his father’s eyes.  Tobias does so and his father’s blindness is cured. Raphael reveals that he is really an angel and returns to heaven.  When Tobit eventually dies Tobias and Sarah go back to Medea. Before he dies Tobit has told his son about Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh will be destroyed. He advises Tobias that he and Sarah would be safer living elsewhere.  

Lord Gort

The Tobit Tapestries came to the Winnipeg Art Gallery as a gift from Lord Gort who was a friend of the art gallery director Ferdinand Eckhardt.   A British/Irish soldier who became a Canadian citizen, Gort had real estate holdings in Winnipeg.  He collected art after World War II and since he had no children Eckhardt convinced him to bequeath his art collection to the Winnipeg Art Gallery. 

The Winnipeg Art Gallery

One of the Bisham Abbey Tapestries was stolen when the Winnipeg Art Gallery moved to its new home in the 1970’s.   A $500 reward for information leading to its return was offered. The lawyer for the art gallery received a $6000 ransom note and went to meet the thieves in the countryside south of Winnipeg. The thieves took out a gym bag and rolled out the tapestry in the snow so the lawyer could verify it was the missing art piece.  The lawyer told the thieves they would have to go to the bank with him so he could get their money. The police were waiting there and arrested them.  

The Tobit Tapestries tell an interesting story I had never heard before. The story of the tapestries’ history at the Winnipeg Art Gallery is also an interesting one. I can hardly wait to share it with visitors on the tours I give. 

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