The Winnipeg Art Gallery hangs the beautiful wool and silk Tobit tapestries in its foyer at Christmas. King Henry VIII commissioned Flemish artist Bernard Van Orley to design the tapestries for the royal manor house Bisham Abbey. The tapestries tell the story of the Book of Tobit from the Biblical Apocrypha. The hero is a Hebrew named Tobit who has been deported to Nineveh by the Assyrians along with his wife Anna and son Tobias.
Tobit takes it upon himself to provide proper Jewish burials for his countrymen killed by the Assyrian king. This angers the king and he seizes Tobit’s goods and property and sends him into exile. Tobit is sleeping outside when droppings from birds fall into his eyes and he is blinded.
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 good service. When she returns home with the goat Tobit accuses her of stealing it and she loses her temper with him. Poor Tobit! He is penniless, blind and his wife is mad at him. Tobit wishes he were dead.
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 volunteers to go along to protect Tobias.
While on the journey Tobias is washing his feet in a 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 Tobias meets Sarah. She has been a widow seven times. On her wedding nights each of her husbands was 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. Raphael tells Tobias to burn the liver and heart of the fish on his wedding night and it will scare off the demon that has killed Sarah’s other husbands. Tobias obeys and the demon is banished to Egypt.
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 he is really an angel and returns to heaven. Before he dies Tobit tells his son about Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh will be destroyed and advises Tobias he and Sarah would be safer going back to Medea. They take Tobit’s advice.
The Tobit Tapestries came to the Winnipeg Art Gallery as a gift from Lord Gort, a British/Irish soldier who became a Canadian citizen and had real estate holdings in Winnipeg. Gort collected art and his friend Ferdinand Eckhardt, the director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, convinced him to bequeath his collection to the gallery. Between 1981 and 1998 the Tobit Tapestries were painstakingly cleaned and repaired. More than 550 hours was spent restoring each tapestry.
One of the Tobit Tapestries was stolen during the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s move to its new home in the 1970s. 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 one. The lawyer told the thieves they would have to go to the bank with him so he could get their money. They followed him to the bank and the police were waiting there and arrested the thieves.
The Tobit Tapestries tell an interesting story and they have an interesting history with the Winnipeg Art Gallery.