Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Rembrandt: Tobias Healing His Father’s Blindness

James L. Franklin
Chicago, Illinois, United States

Tobias Healing his Father’s Blindness. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. Photo by Jose Luiz on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s Tobias Healing his Father’s Blindness, painted in 1636, depicts the climactic moment in the Book of Tobit when Tobias returns to his father’s home and instills the gall (bile) he had taken from a giant fish into his blind father’s eyes, thereby restoring his sight.1 In Rembrandt’s rendering of this scene, Tobias is depicted surgeon-like, poised to operate with a sharp instrument in his right hand while using his left hand to retract his father’s eyelids. Rembrandt returned to this subject somewhere between 1640–1645 in a pen and brown ink drawing. He created two further drawings in the 1650s with the action in a more central position so as to define the role of each character in the story. Rembrandt’s vision of this scene is an entrée to explore the artist’s engagement with the Book of Tobit. For the medically inclined, Rembrandt’s rendering of this scene is of particular interest, as is the blindness of Tobit.

Rembrandt turned to the Bible more than to any other source. The Book of Tobit clearly held a fascination, for there exist fifty-five paintings, drawings and etchings depicting scenes from the story by the artist. The Book of Tobit is one of thirteen books that make up the Deuterocanon or Apocrypha. The latter designation (etymologically “secret” or “hidden”) derives from its ambiguous place in the accepted biblical canon between denominations. These texts include familiar writings such as the Book of Judith, the Book of Susanna, and the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. The Apocrypha was not included in the Hebrew Bible but appeared in the Greek translation or Septuagint. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible included them, and they were defined as part of the biblical canon by the Catholic Church in 1546. The books were included in the Dutch Bible established by the Dutch Reformed Church’s Synod of Dordrecht in 1618, one that Rembrandt would have known, though its readers were warned in the preface of their “untrustworthy” nature. The Book of Tobit dates to the third or early second century BC, and Aramaic and Hebrew fragments were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Detail: Tobias Healing his Father’s Blindness. Crop of photo by Jose Luiz on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0.

A brief summary follows to locate the painting, Tobias Healing His Father’s Blindness, in the Biblical narrative:

The Kingdom of Israel has been invaded by the Assyrians, and many Jews, including Tobit, have been carried into captivity. Tobit is living in Nineveh with his wife Anna and their son Tobias. Tobit adheres to Mosaic law and serves the community by ritually burying the dead outside the city before sunset. On one occasion, he remains outside the city, sleeping through the night against the city wall. A sparrow’s droppings fall into his eyes, covering them with a white film that blinds him. His infirmity impoverishes his family and he sends his son on a journey to Media to reclaim a debt. To protect his son on his travels, Tobit selects a companion who calls himself Azariah, but is really the angel Raphael in disguise. Tobias and Azariah venture forth accompanied by a little dog. On their journey they cross the river Tigris where Tobias, while bathing, is attacked by a giant fish. The angel commands him to catch the fish and cut out the heart and liver to serve as a remedy against evil spirits and to save the gall which will cure his father’s blindness. They journey on to Ecbatana where Tobias stays at the home of Raguel, a friend of his father. Tobias falls in love with Sarah, Raguel’s beautiful daughter. Sarah is possessed by a demon, Asmodeus, who has killed her seven previous bridegrooms before their marriages could be consummated. Using the power of the heart and liver, Tobias chases away the evil spirit and secures Sarah as his bride. The couple returns to Nineveh, where Tobit and Anna have grown fearful for their son’s return. When they are reunited, Tobias spreads the gall in his father’s eyes, dissolving the film that has blinded him and restoring his sight. In the Epilogue, we learn that Tobit’s blindness was of eight years duration and that both father and son lived to a ripe old biblical age.

While the compilers of the Dordrecht Bible had reservations about the “magical” elements in the Book of Tobit, seeing it as a “Rabbinical Tale” and disbelieving the killing of the seven bridegrooms, Rembrandt and artists of both the Northern Renaissance and Italian Renaissance frequently turned to the text for inspiration. In addition to his depicting Tobias curing his father’s blindness, Rembrandt was inspired by many scenes from the story, including: Tobit sleeping below the swallow’s nest, a domestic scene when the blind Tobit and Anna falsely accuses Anna of stealing a lamb, Tobit interviewing “Azariah” to accompany his son on their journey, Tobias and “Azariah” walking and resting on their travels, Tobias frightened by the fish, Tobias disemboweling the fish, Tobias welcomed by Raquel in Ecbatana, Tobias and Sarah praying, Tobit and Anna waiting for Tobias’ return, Tobit advancing to welcome his son, and the final scene, the departure of the angel Raphael from the family. He seems to have taken great pleasure in the small dog that accompanied Tobias on his travels. Tobit is the only book in the Bible that specifically involves a dog. Dogs are frequently included in the artist’s work, and Rembrandt’s dogs are mongrels, as opposed, for example, to those of Peter Paul Rubens, whose dogs are purebred specimens.

It is important to consider the elements in the story that might have fascinated Rembrandt. As art historian Julius S. Held points out, “The large number of illustrations of the Book of Tobit made by Rembrandt in the highly personal medium of drawing and etching clearly cannot be accounted for by commissions.”2 Held offers a number of explanations. Throughout his career, Rembrandt turned to biblical stories where God’s will is communicated through the visible intervention of angels. The relationship of father and son, too, brings to mind Rembrandt’s famous painting The Return of the Prodigal Son and those paintings of his own son Titus.The bond between father and sonpermeates the narrative in Tobit and culminates in Tobias’ act of filial piety in curing his father’s blindness.

Vision is of obvious importance to any artist, as it clearly was for Rembrandt. Blindness is a recurrent theme in his work. Examples include: The Blinding of Samson of 1636; Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer of 1653; as well as drawings of blind beggars, fiddlers, and of Christ healing a blind man. Art historian Simon Schama sees “Rembrandt’s entire career as a dialogue between outward and inward vision . . .”3 Rembrandt’s father, Harmen Gerrits van Rijn, died in 1630 when Rembrandt was twenty-four years old. His drawing labeled Harman Gerrits or Portrait of His Father suggests that his father had lost his sight. Rembrandt was well aware of the sentiment that sight was the noblest of the senses and that no greater tragedy could befall a man than blindness.

It is instructive to look at the work of other artists who depicted Tobias curing his father’s blindness to appreciate how uniquely Rembrandt visualized this scene. The Flemish painter Jan Massij (1510–1575) painted this scene in the mid-sixteenth century in keeping with the biblical narrative depicting Tobias manually instilling the fish gall into his father’s eyes. The cure of Tobit’s blindness seems to have been one of the favorite subjects of Bernardo Stozzi (1581–1644); he painted some nine versions showing Tobias following Azariah’s instructions to “anoint his eyes with the gall, and when they smart, he will rub them and they will cause the white films to fall away, and he will see you.” Rembrandt deviates from the biblical narrative, depicting Tobias as a surgeon with an instrument in hand.

Rembrandt’s relationship with the medical community of Amsterdam is signaled in his 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp. It was a prestigious commission for the twenty-five-year-old artist, and it put him in contact with Amsterdam’s elite members of the profession. In 1628 Tulp was appointed Praelectoer Anatomiaeat of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. Dr. Richard Greeff was the first to call attention in 1907 to the fact that Tobias Healing His Father’s Blindness was a medically perfect rendering of the removal of a cataract. M.H. Heineman believes Tobias Healing His Father’s Blindness “offers a rare glimpse of how cataract was treated in early seventeenth century Amsterdam.”4 The author is among many who believe Rembrandt must have observed the performance of a cataract operation. A young Amsterdam surgeon, Dr. Job Janszoon van Meekren (1611–1666), a pupil of Dr. Tulp, is thought to have allowed Rembrandt to witness a cataract operation. Van Meekren was five years Rembrandt’s junior and specialized in operations on the eye. The scope of his medical accomplishments is revealed in a monograph, Observationes Medico-Chirugicae, published posthumously. His ophthalmologic writings include detailed descriptions of the anterior segment, the cause and treatment of cataract, and the management of orbital masses.

Cataract surgery as practiced in 17th century Amsterdam was shaped by the work of Benenutus Grassus, found in the writings of Guy de Chaulie (1300–1368), Ambrose Paré (1500–1590), and George Bartisch (1535–1606).5 The latter, though lacking formal medical training, thoroughly described techniques and instrumentation of couching. Couching was the earliest documented form of cataract surgery and involved using a sharp instrument to dislodge the lens into the posterior chamber of the eye and out of the direct field of vision. The procedure Rembrandt depicted in his renderings of Tobias curing Tobit was a form of couching. The lenticular nature of cataract was not established until 1691 by Antoine Maitre-Jan (1650–1731) when he dissected the eye of a patient he had couched. Primary extraction of an opaque lens was first performed by Jacques Daviel in 1750 and by Samuel Sharp in 1753 who extracted the lens and lens capsule through a surgical incision.

Medically inclined readers of the Book of Tobit will speculate as to what caused Tobit’s blindness. Recalling the medically relevant facts in the case, Tobit fell asleep beside a wall and as his face was uncovered, the droppings from a sparrow’s nest fell into his eyes, causing a white film to form on them. It would seem that his blindness was immediate, and though he went to local physicians, he was not cured. His blindness lasted eight years until Tobias instilled fish gall into his eyes, causing them to smart. When he rubbed them, the white films scaled from his eyes, curing his blindness.

Ernest Thomson discussed the blindness of Tobit in the British Journal of Ophthalmology in 1931.6 In his analysis of the text, the diagnosis of bilateral cataracts seemed implausible. He also thought it unlikely that the droppings of the sparrows would cause double blindness “even supposing that Tobit had lagophthalmos and had his eyes open in sleep.” Thomson suggests that some “septic or pathological secretion” related to Tobit’s occupation, burying the dead, “set up a violent inflammation that caused the eyes to be closed up.”

Harold Thomas Swan, a hematologist and lecturer medical history at the University of Sheffield, treats the Book of Tobit as an ancient medical case history of “couching” for cataract.7 He postulates that Tobit underwent an “unorthodox couching” that resulted his vigorously rubbing his eyes and causing the lens to be dislocated and immediately restoring his sight. The late Horton A. Johnston, New York pathologist and art historian, believed that Tobit’s blindness was caused by trachoma, an infection prevalent in both ancient times as well as today.8 The purulent conjunctivitis is caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. Blindness results from pannus formation, caused by the overgrowth of vessels from the limbus, the border between the transparent cornea and opaque sclera of the eye. The use of fish bile was ancient and may have been beneficial. The use of bile from a variety of animals was recommended for trachoma by Celsus in the first century AD, by Paracelsus in the 16th century, and in the 17th century by “the Dutchman van Forest, the German Sennert and the Syrian Ibn Sallum.9

Attempts to assign a precise clinical pathologic diagnosis to the blindness of Tobit may be an intriguing intellectual exercise, but they stray from the fact that the Book of Tobit is a theological work with a strong emphasis on prayer, faith, and reverence for God. While Rembrandt’s Tobias Healing His Father’s Blindness gestures toward the medical profession in 17th century Amsterdam, the artist’s engagement with the text was both personal and in keeping with the humanist traditions of the Northern Renaissance.


  1. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Tobias Healing His Father’s Blindness, 1636, oil on panel (height 18.5 inches, width 15.2 inches), Staatsgalerie, Stettgart.
  2. Julian S. Held, Rembrandt Studies, Princeton University Press, 1991. “Rembrandt and the Book of Tobit (1964),” p. 118-43. Professor Held’s publication contains an extensive printing of the relevant images in an appendix.
  3. Simon Schama, Rembrandt’s Eyes. A Borzoi Book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, p. 424.
  4. M.H. Heinemann and H.C. Pinell-Staehle, Rembrandt van Rijn and Cataract Surgery in 17th Century Amsterdam, Historia Ophthalmalogica Internationalis 1981;2:85-95.
  5. Simon Schama, Ibid, p. 427 believes the positioning of Tobias and Tobit can be found in Utrecht physician Carl van Baten’s Dutch Translation of Oswald Gabelkower’s Medecynboek.
  6. Ernest Thomson and R.R. James, The Blindness of Tobit, The British Journal of Ophthalmology, 1931;15(9):516-8.
  7. H.T. Swan, An ancient record of “couching” for cataract, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1995; 88:208-11.
  8. Horton A. Johnson, Fish bile and cautery: trachoma treatment in art, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2005;98(1):30-2.
  9. E. Savage-Smith, Drug therapy of eye disease in seventeenth century Islamic medicine, Pharmacy in History, 1987;29:3-28.

JAMES L. FRANKLIN is a gastroenterologist and associate professor emeritus at Rush University Medical Center. He also serves on the editorial board of Hektoen International and as the president of Hektoen’s Society of Medical History & Humanities.

Winter 2024



One response

  1. What happened in the 17th century after the lens was removed in cataract surgery? Was an artificial one put in place? How was infection avoided?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.