Joseph sent to Sechem by Jacob, from the Vienna Genesis by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Joseph sent to Sechem by Jacob, from the Vienna Genesis, 6th century, Illuminated manuscript, Österreichische Nationalbibliotek, Vienna, Cod. theol. gr. 31, Courtesy of Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

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Behold This Dreamer Cometh

Commentary by

The Vienna Genesis is a sumptuous sixth-century manuscript (Zimmermann 2003). Approximately half of each of its purple dyed pages contains text excerpted from the Bible, while the other half displays an illustration.

On the page exhibited here, the painting portrays Jacob sending the young Joseph out to visit his brothers, who are tending their flocks at Shechem (Weitzmann 1977: 80). The artist tells the story in a novelistic manner, with an emphasis on human emotion. At the upper left of the miniature, the father tenderly sends the beloved son of his old age on his mission. As he departs, Joseph bends down to kiss the youngest of his brothers—and the only one with whom he shares a mother—the child Benjamin. On the right, Joseph is led on his way by an angel, not mentioned in the biblical text. As he goes, Joseph turns to give a farewell glance at little Benjamin, who stands crying behind him. At the bottom left, Joseph is told where to find his brothers by a man whom he meets in a field (Genesis 37:15–17). At the bottom right Joseph’s brothers gesticulate excitedly toward Joseph, as they see him approaching from behind a hill at the upper left of the scene.

According to the biblical text, even when the brothers spied Joseph from afar, they were already plotting to kill him, saying to each other ‘Behold this dreamer cometh’ (Genesis 37:18–20). Joseph’s two dreams, which forecast his dominion over his family, had been described earlier in the chapter. In the first, the brothers were binding sheaves in a field, when Joseph’s sheaf stood upright and his brother’s sheaves made obeisance to it (vv.5–7). In the second dream, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars all bowed down to Joseph (v.9). These dreams caused the brothers to resent Joseph, as did the favouritism shown to him by their father, exemplified by the gift of a coat of many colours (vv.3–4).



Weitzmann, Kurt. 1977. Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination (London: Chatto & Windus)

Zimmermann, B. 2003. Die Wiener Genesis im Rahmen der antiken Buchmalerei (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag)

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