Roundel Illustrating Episodes from the Biblical Story of Joseph by Unknown Egyptian artist

Unknown Egyptian artist

Roundel Illustrating Episodes from the Biblical Story of Joseph, 7th century, Linen, wool; tapestry weave, Diam.: 26.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Gift of Charles K. and Irma B. Wilkinson, 1963, 63.178.2, www.metmuseum.org

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A Story that Comes Full Circle

Commentary by

This textile roundel was produced in Egypt, probably in the late sixth or the seventh century (Friedman 1989: 160; Stauffer 1995: 37). It is woven in coloured wools on a plain undyed linen ground, a cheaper medium than silk. The roundel illustrates almost the whole of Genesis 37, thus expanding the story of Joseph that is shown in the Vienna Genesis manuscript and in the silk at Sens (both also in this exhibition).

At the upper left of the circle Jacob, seated on a throne, sends Joseph out to join his brothers at Shechem. Joseph appears as a child, as he does in all of the subsequent scenes. Just to the left appears a man who is either the stranger giving Joseph directions, or one of his siblings receiving him. Then, reading in a counter-clockwise direction, we see a brother putting Joseph in the well, having stripped him of his coat of many colours. At the bottom of the roundel the brothers dip the coat in the blood of a goat, before selling Joseph to a dark-skinned Midianite. To the right Reuben laments beside the empty well. At the far right, Joseph is transported to Egypt on the back of an animal, before being sold by a Midianite to Potiphar. These episodes encircle a small central medallion illustrating the second dream that caused the brothers’ envy, namely the personified sun and moon, and the eleven stars all bowing down before the sleeping Joseph (Genesis 37:9).

This roundel belongs to a large group of similar pieces woven with the same cycle of scenes taken from Genesis 37 (Abdel-Malek 1980; Fluck 2008). The majority were either medallions, placed at the shoulders and knees of tunics, or they were sleeve bands or vertical bands located on the bodies of the garments. Typically, they were woven in sets, so that the same imagery would have been repeated several times on the same piece of clothing. It is evident that some of these tunics were given to children, so that the child-like appearance of Joseph in the weavings would have been appropriate for the age of the wearer. Not only did the roundel adorn a garment with colour, but it was interwoven with spiritual significance, for the story of Joseph was seen as a prefiguration of the life of Christ; Joseph’s rescue from the well and his eventual rule over his brothers embodied the message of Christ’s triumph through the Resurrection.

 

References

Abdel-Malek, Laila H. 1980. ‘Joseph Tapestries and Related Coptic Textiles’ (Unpublished PhD, Boston University)

Fluck, Cäcilia. 2008. Ein buntes Kleid für Josef: Biblische Geschichten auf ägyptischen Wirkereien aus dem Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, Berlin (Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Friedman, F. D. (ed.). 1989. Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th Centuries AD (Providence: Rhode Island School of Design)

Stauffer, Annemarie, et al. 1995. Textiles of Late Antiquity (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


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