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Peter von Cornelius

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, 1816, Watercolour and gouache over pencil on brownish card, 38.6 x 35.7 cm, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, SZ Cornelius 20, Alinari / Art Resource, NY

Hilaire Pader

The Triumph of Joseph, 1657, Oil on canvas, 275 x 775 cm, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, Toulouse, (CC BY-SA 4.0) https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48178134

Unknown artist

Scenes from the life of Joseph, from the Golden Haggadah (upper right: Pharaoh's dream; upper left: Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream; lower right: the arrest of Simeon; lower left: Joseph revealing himself to his brothers), c.1320–30, Illuminated manuscript, 245 x 190/195 mm, The British Library, London, Add MS 27210, fol. 7r, © The British Library Board (Add MS 27210, fol. 7r)

‘Fruitful in the Land of my Affliction’

Comparative Commentary by

The story of Joseph (Genesis 37; 39–45) is ‘…the most intricately constructed … of all the patriarchal histories … for sustained dramatic effect … unsurpassed in the whole Pentateuch’ (Speiser 1964: 292). Genesis 41 is widely regarded as the very centre of this dramatic tale (Westermann 1986: 85). It tells of Joseph’s unlikely rise to power in Egypt, and sets the stage for his reunion with his family after a two-decade long separation. It divides into three parts, a common pattern in Hebrew narrative: a description of Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis 41:1–13); an account of their interpretation by Joseph (vv.14–46); and a demonstration of their eventual fulfilment, in which Joseph will play a central role (vv.47–57; Wenham 2000: 389).

These three acts are represented in turn in this exhibition. Two of the artworks reflect an appreciation of the chapter as a whole and of the interconnections between its three sections. So folio 7 of the Golden Haggadah encompasses both the dream interpretation scene and the final episode of this narrative, in which Joseph as Pharaoh’s chief advisor will welcome his family to Egypt.

In Peter von Cornelius’s portrayal of Joseph explaining Pharaoh’s dreams, too, the composition hints at the implications of this for Joseph’s future role and authority, particularly through the secondary scene at the right which shows him riding in his chariot. In the main scene Joseph alone is foregrounded, albeit with his back to the viewer, and the king and all his courtiers listen to him in respectful silence, although the sense of closeness between the two main protagonists which emerges in the Golden Haggadah is lacking.

Hilaire Pader concentrates wholly on the final scene, lavishly celebrating Joseph’s eminence as grand vizier of Egypt. The success of a Hebrew abroad was enthusiastically celebrated by both early Jews (as in Joseph and Aseneth, a romantic novel written in Greek by an unnamed author around the turn of the era), and early Christians, who saw in Joseph’s life a prefiguration of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation (as in the sermons of St Ephrem the Syrian). With rich colours and large crowds, Pader deftly conveys a sense of the size and wealth of the land over which Joseph is set, and of the splendour and power with which he is invested.

Over the course of this chapter, then, the imprisoned and forgotten slave has been transformed into a member of the Egyptian elite, second only to Pharaoh in authority and married into a high-status priestly family (vv.4–45). Ironically, it is Joseph’s apparently complete absorption into his adopted society depicted so fully by Pader that will bring about his reconnection with his Hebrew origins, when members of his family journey to Egypt during the famine (41:57–42:3).  

Pharaoh’s dreams are presented in the biblical text as a true and divinely-sent message (41:25, 28, 32), reflecting a view widespread in the ancient world (Westermann 1996: 46). The providential and life-changing power of dreams is literally enacted in this narrative and in these visual representations of it, as they are instrumental in raising Joseph to greatness and ultimately enabling him to give life and prosperity to his entire clan when they migrate to Egypt (42:2; 45:18).

For the biblical narrator, however, these events are not primarily about the individual character, Joseph. Rather, they form one strand within a much larger epic about Israel’s ancestors, who encounter numerous obstacles on their way to inheriting the promises made to them by their God of land, descendants, and blessings (Genesis 12:1–3; 17:2–8; 22:16–18). Joseph’s life encapsulates the experience of these early patriarchs, and also foreshadows the key events of the exodus, when his people will become enslaved in Egypt as he was, will interact with another Pharaoh in order to gain their deliverance, and will again ultimately triumph through divine intervention (Exodus 1:1–14:31). This link between Joseph’s own life and the exodus is made explicit when he gives his second son, Ephraim, a name which recalls both the divine promises to Abraham of ‘fruitfulness’ (Genesis 12:2; 15:5; 17:2–6; 22:15–17) and the ‘afflictions’ which his descendants will suffer in Egypt (Genesis 41:52; see Exodus 3:7, 17; 4:3). It is also appropriately highlighted by the inclusion of an artistic portrayal of the Joseph narrative at the front of the Golden Haggadah, a book designed for use in the annual celebration of the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt at Passover.

 

References

Goodacre, Mark. 1999. ‘The Aseneth Home Page’, available The Aseneth Home Page (markgoodacre.org)

Speiser, Ephraim. 1964. Genesis: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Wenham, Gordon. 2000. Genesis 1650, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan)

Westermann, Claus. 1986. Genesis 3750 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress)

———. 1996. Joseph: Studies of the Joseph Stories in Genesis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark)

Next exhibition: Exodus 2:5–10