Angelo Raffaele

A rare church for a lesser known angel

Angelo Raffaele

Churches dedicated to the Archangel Raphael are rare enough. Out of a select group of seven possible archangels, Michael, heaven's generalissimo and weigher of souls, has the most, while the lily-bearing Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, appears the most sweetly in art. These two are the only archangels named in the New Testament, and are the only one recognized by most Protestant churches.

For those who consider the Book of Tobit canonical (Catholics, the Orthodox and some Anglicans), there is a third archangel, Raphael, known in Venetians as Anzolo Rafael. In the story, he appears disguised in human form to act as a travelling companion to Tobit's young son Tobias.

At one point, the angel tells Tobias to catch a fish. He used the fish's gallbladder to heal Tobit's blindness, then set fires to the fish's heart and liver to drive away the demon Asmodeus, who was murdering all of the bridegrooms of Sarah (Tobit's future daughter-in-law) before they could consummate the marriage. These fishy cures have made Raphael (whose name in Hebrew means 'it is God who heals') the patron of medical staff and travellers.

In plague-ridden Venice, the Angel's reputation as a healer was irresistible; the original version of the church (one of only two free standing churches in Venice, closing out the view down the Fondamenta del Soccorso) may even date from the 5th century. It was destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions, lastly in 1618.

Tobias with his fish and dog appear in a charming 16th-century relief over the portal. The best art is, unusually, on the organ parapet against the facade wall, painted with a visionary, impressionistic scenes of Tobias and the Angel (1753) by Gian Antonio Guardi, where material forms are dissolved into quick, free brushstrokes.

These are the paintings that inspire the heroine of Salley Vickers' novel, Miss Garnet's Angel (2000), the success of which not only attracted pilgrims to the church but led to its restoration in 2004.

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