The Archangel Raphael is esteemed as the guardian angel of the human race. He especially protects the young and innocent, and guards pilgrims and travelers from harm. It was he who warned Adam of the danger of sin, and declared to him its dread consequences. Milton thus interprets the message:
Be strong, live happy, and love ! but first of all
Him, whom to love is to obey, and keep
His great command; take heed lest passion sway
Thy judgment to do aught, which else free-will
Would not admit; thine, and of all thy sons
The weal or woe in thee is placed ; beware !
That Raphael’s language was benevolent and sympathetic, as imagined by the poet, appears in Adam’s farewell to the angel:
Since to part
Go, heavenly guest, ethereal messenger.
Sent from whose sovereign goodness I adore !
Gentle to me, and affable hath been
Thy condescension, and shall be honor’d ever
With grateful memory. Thou to mankind
Be good and friendly still, and oft return!
Representations of St. Raphael are far less numerous than are those of St. Michael and St. Gabriel. They are always pleasing, and present him as a benign, sympathetic, and companionable friend to those whom he serves. His symbol is habitually a pilgrim’s staff; as a guardian hewears a sword, and has a small casket or vase, containing the “fishy charm” against evil spirits. He wears a pilgrim’s dress, has sandals on his feet, and a pilgrim bottle or wallet hangs from his belt. His flowing hair is bound by a diadem, and his beautiful face expresses the benevolence of his character and mission.
Many chapels and some churches are dedicated to the Archangel Raphael, as the chief of celestial guardians, and in these are numerous pictures commemorating his benevolent deeds. The greater part of the representations of this archangel are so connected with the history of Tobias, that it is necessary to know his story, in order to enjoy or understand these pictures. I will give this beautiful Hebrew narrative as concisely as possible:
Tobit was a rich man, and just; and he and his wife, Sara, were carried into captivity by the Assyrians. He gave alms to all his people, lived justly, and ate not the bread of the Gentiles. His misfortunes, however, increased; he had but his wife and his son, Tobias, left to him, when he became blind, and prayed for death.
At the same time a man named Raguel, who dwelt in Ecbatane, was afflicted with a daughter who was persecuted by an evil spirit. She had married seven husbands, and each one had been killed by the fiend, as soon as he entered the bridal chamber. The maiden was accused of these murders, and, like Tobit, she prayed for death.
God then sent the Archangel Raphael to cure the blindness of Tobit, and take away the reproach of the unhappy daughter of Raguel of Ecbatane.
At this time Tobit desired his son, Tobias, to go to Gabael in Media to receive ten talents, which Tobit had left in trust with Gabael. Tobias asked, “How can I receive the money, seeing I know him not ?”
Tobit gave Tobias the handwriting, and bade him seek a guide for his journey. Raphael then offered to guide the young man, who knew not that he spoke with an archangel. Tobias led Raphael to his father, and they agreed upon the wages the guide should receive, and Tobit gave directions concerning the journey, while he and Sara, his wife, were greatly afflicted at parting with Tobias.
At evening the travellers came to the river Tigris, and when Tobias went to bathe, a fish leapt out at him. Raphael told the youth to take out the liver and gall of the fish and preserve it carefully, which being done, they roasted the fish and ate it. When Tobias asked why he should keep the liver and the gall, the angel told him that the heart and liver would cure a person vexed with an evil spirit, if a smoke from them was made before the person; and the gall would cure the blindness of one afflicted with whiteness of the eyes.
In our illustration from the picture by Andrea del Sarto, in the Belvedere, Vienna, Tobias carries the fish, and it appears to represent the moment when Raphael is making his explanation of its purpose.
As they proceeded Raphael said, “Brother, to-day we shall lodge with Raguel, who is thy cousin; he hath but one daughter, named Sara; I will ask her as a wife for thee: she belongs to thee by law, and is fair and wise, and you can marry her when we return.” Then Tobias, who knew the fate of the seven husbands, was filled with fear lest he too should die, and thus afflict his parents, who had no other child.
But Raphael assured Tobias that Sara was the wife that the Lord intended for him, and that when he entered the marriage chamber the evil spirit would flee at the smoke he should make with the liver of the fish, and would never return. When Tobias heard this he loved the maiden, and his heart was effectually joined to her.
When they came near Ecbatane, they met Sara, and she led them to her parents, who rejoiced to see them, and wept when they heard of the blindness of Tobit. While the servants of Raguel prepared a supper, Tobias said to the angel, “Speak of those things of which thou didst talk, and let this business be dispatched.” Then Raphael asked Raguel to give Sara to Tobias; but the father was sore distressed, and told of the death of the seven who had already married her; but as Sara belonged to Tobias by the law of Moses, his request could not be denied, and before they did eat together, Raguel joined their hands, and blessed them.
Then the marriage chamber was prepared, and the maiden wept; but her mother comforted her, and when Tobias entered and made the smoke as the angel had directed, the evil spirit fled. Tobias and Sara knelt in thankfulness, and Tobias prayed as Raphael had told him, and Sara said, “Amen.”
In the morning Raguel dug a grave, for he wished to bury Tobias quickly, that no one should know what had happened; but when he sent to see if he were dead, it was found that the young husband was quietly sleeping. Then there was great rejoicing, and a wedding feast was made, which lasted fourteen days. Meanwhile, Raphael went to Gabael and received from him the ten talents, and when the feast ended, the angel conducted Tobias and Sara to Tobit, and Raguel bestowed on Sara half his wealth.
As they approached Nineveh, Raphael said to Tobias, “Let us haste before thy wife, to prepare the house: and take thou the gall of the fish.” The mother of Tobias was watching for his return, and was greatly alarmed at his long absence. When she saw him with his guide, and the little dog which he had taken away, she ran to Tobit with the news, and they rejoiced greatly. Raphael now said to Tobias, “I know that thy father will open his eyes; therefore anoint them with the gall, and being pricked therewith, he shall rub them, and the whiteness shall fall away, and he shall see thee.” And so it was, and Tobit was blind no more, and they all rejoiced and blessed God.
Then Tobias recounted all that had happened, and his parents went out with him to meet his wife, and her servants, and cattle, and all she had brought with her. And the people were filled with wonder to see that Tobit was blind no more, and they rejoiced greatly with him during seven days when he kept a feast.
Tobit bade his son to call his guide and give him more than the wages that had been named. And Tobias wished to give the angel half of all he had brought back with him, and Tobit said, “It is due unto him.” But when Raphael knew their intentions he commanded them to glorify God for all his goodness, and told Tobit that his goodness and sorrows and those of the daughter of Raguel had been known in heaven, and God had sent him to heal all these troubles, and added, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels, which present the prayers of the saints, and go in and out before the glory of the Holy One.”
The Archangel Raphael Refusing the Gifts of Tobias by Giovanni Biliverti
The illustration after the picture of Giovanni Biliverti in the Pitti Gallery, Florence, places before us the scene, when, refusing reward, the Archangel declared himself. The beauty of the angel, the affectionate enthusiasm of Tobias, and the sincere and reverent gratitude of the old Tobit are wonderfully portrayed, while the young wife and the aged mother in the background complete the group of those who have been delivered from their sorrows by the messenger of the Most High.
From the time when the angel left them Tobit and Raguel prospered, and after Tobit and Sara died, Tobias removed to Ecbatane and inherited the wealth of Raguel; he lived with honor to be an hundred and seven and twenty years old, and to hear of the destruction of Nineveh.
Milton thus refers to the story of Tobias:
The affable archangel
Raphael; the sociable spirit that design’d
To travel with Tobias, and secured
His marriage with the seven times wedded maid.
Source: Clement, Clara Erskine. Angels in Art. Boston: L. C. Page and Company, 1898.