By Carla Carlton
In early September 2022, an unusual return landed on the circulation desk of the W.L. Lyons Brown Library. It was a small, framed replica of a Renaissance painting. And it was 42 years overdue.
“You’re returning what?”
Library Director John Stemmer said his first reaction was, “You’re returning what?”
Apparently, Bellarmine once had a small collection of reproduction paintings available for borrowing. “I suspect that the collection was started for faculty to use in their classrooms,” Stemmer said.
Sometime in 1980, beloved History professor Margaret Mahoney checked out this painting, titled Tobias and the Angel, and hung it on the wall in her office, Pasteur 206-B. And there it stayed for the next four decades—more than half as long as Bellarmine’s entire existence.
“I just assumed Margaret had acquired it somewhere along the way,” said Dr. Tim Welliver, chair of the History Department. Dr. Mahoney passed away in 2018, but the painting remained until Dr. Laura Ping moved into the office this semester as a new assistant professor of History and opted to redecorate, Welliver said.
“We didn’t know anything about it until it came off the wall,” he said. On the back of the frame was an envelope with a library checkout card tucked inside. “Please keep this card in the book pocket,” it read. “This book is due on the latest date stamped.” That was Dec. 12, 1980. Welliver returned the painting to the library on Sept. 7, 2022.
“It didn’t have a bar code, which means it was never transferred to the automated system we have now,” said Stemmer, who has been library director since 2006. The automated system predates the W.L. Lyons Brown Library, which opened in 1997; before that, the library was in a room on the first floor of Horrigan Hall. “So we had no knowledge that the painting had been checked out.”
It was, he said, by far the latest library return he’s ever seen.
The original Tobias and the Angel is in the collection of the National Gallery in London, which attributes it to the studio of 15th century artist Andrea del Verrocchio and dates it to 1470-1475. The painting depicts a story from the biblical book of Tobit, which Protestants and Jews consider apocryphal.
In the story, the blind merchant Tobit sends his son Tobias to collect a debt, and God sends the Archangel Raphael to accompany Tobias and his dog on the journey. Tobias holds the receipt of the debt in one hand and a freshly caught fish on a line in the other. Raphael carries a decorative box containing the fish’s organs, which he says can be made into an ointment to cure blindness or burned to drive away demons.
Raphael and Tobias visit Tobias’ cousin, Sarah, who has been plagued by a demon. Tobias marries her, burns the fish organs to repel the demon and returns home to cure his father’s blindness.
The National Gallery says that while most of the painting was done by an unknown member of Verrocchio’s workshop, the fish and the dog may have been the work of Verrocchio’s student Leonardo. They are more realistic than the other figures, and the background is visible through them, indicating they were added later.
We will probably never know—nor will we know what led Dr. Mahoney to borrow the replica. What is known is that Raphael eventually became the patron saint of travelers, and after 42 years, the painting has returned to the library.