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Jan Steens Biblia

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

The States Bible, or Dutch Authorized Version, is usually consulted for the interpretation of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. Sometimes, however, the Vulgate is a better source, as in the case of Jan Steen's Marriage of Tobias and Sarah in Brunswick. The story of Tobias is told in greater detail in the Vulgate than in the Dutch Authorized Version. Two documents are mentioned in connection with Tobias' nuptials: the marriage settlement between him and Sarah, drawn up before their wedding night, and her parents' will, which named Tobias as beneficiary. This will was made after Tobias survived the wedding night, the first of eight bridegrooms to do so. The States Bible mentions the bequest, but not the document in which it is recorded. Steen's painting probably represents the drawing-up of the will and not, as was hitherto supposed, the marriage settlement. The recently restored Prayer of Tobias and Sarah in the Bredius Museum might, prior to its mutilation, have been a companion to the Brunswick painting. In his prayer Tobias stresses that their marriagc is not motivated by physical desire but by the wish to found a family. In this connection he refers to the creation of Eve, which is represented in a painting on the wall of the 'banqueting hall' in the Brunswick companion piece. The vaguely indicated figure of Christ in Steen's Christat Emmaus (Rijksmuseum) has surprised many people. In a margin note to the relevant passage the States Bible remarks that Christ quickly vanished from the disciples' sight as soon as they recognized him. The Vulgate uses the word 'evanesco', meaning gradual disappearance in the sense of fugitive fragrancy or fading colour. Here, too, the Vulgate proves to be a better source than the States Bible.


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