Tobias Burying the Dead

Taken from the Book of Tobias (Tobias, I, 17-18 and II, 4-8) in the Vulgate - or late fourth-century canonical version of the Bible - the subject of this drawing is Tobias burying the Assyrian Jews who have been murdered by Niniveh. Despite the edict of King Sennacherib, which decreed that their dead be thrown outside the city walls, Tobit, the father of the young Tobias, secretly had the bodies of his fellow Jews buried under the cover of night. In doing so, he demonstrated more fear of divine law that commanded the Israelites to tend to their dead, than of the life threatening, unjust edicts of his earthly monarch.

The nocturnal scene required by the subject is illuminated only by a fiercely burning torch, brandished by a muscular man descending the stairs. This very elaborate, extremely large, multifigural composition - which appears to be autonomous rather than preparatory in function - has the commanding effect of a painting. Each component plays its part in the drama, from the oppressive architecture of the necropolis to the torch bearer to the repoussoir figures at left and right. The composition is further enlivened by the powerful play with perspective and illumination. By establishing a violent opposition between the white gouache and the various nuances of somber wash, the artist pushed the limits of chiaroscuro to the extreme. Tobias Burying the Dead is one of the most powerful examples of Deshays's so-called tenebrist manner. Throughout his brief career, he demonstrated a marked predilection for scenes in which such contrasts of light accentuate the dramatic character of his subject matter.

Black ink, red/brown wash, cream-colored gouache, black chalk with a graphite framing line (about 1763-1765)

by Jean-Baptiste Deshays (French, 1729-1765)

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