Scenes from the life of Joseph from the Golden Haggadah (upper right: Pharaoh's dream; upper left: Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream in front of his counsellors; lower right: Joseph ordering the arrest of Simeon; lower left: Joseph) by unknown artist

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)

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Pharaoh’s Troubling Dreams

Commentary by

When Jews retell the story of the exodus at the annual family Passover meal, they use a special service book called a Haggadah (named from the Hebrew verb ‘to tell’). This particularly beautiful and ornate example was produced in Catalonia around the year 1320 (Narkiss 1970: 56). It contains fifty-six miniature paintings of biblical scenes, all decorated with opulent gold leaf and intricate punchwork.

This folio represents the section of the Joseph narrative recounted in Genesis 41–43. As with all Hebrew texts, it is read from right to left, beginning in the upper register. The first panel depicts Pharaoh’s two dreams, then Joseph’s explanation of them. Both dreams, of cows and ears of grain (Genesis 41:1–7), are combined within the first miniature. This reflects Joseph’s interpretation that they share a single meaning (v.25). Cows were associated with fertility in ancient Egyptian thought, as well as serving as an essential source of food and labour (Brewer 1994). The dreams therefore presage a serious threat to the kingdom’s economy and prosperity, and so greatly trouble Pharaoh (v.8).

In the top left panel, Joseph is seated next to the ruler, in intimate discussion with him. Their heads are leaning towards one another, and the positions of their hands indicate an animated conversation. All the other courtiers stand a little way off, separated from them both physically and by their lack of comprehension of the dreams. This composition suggests that Joseph, although a foreigner and former prisoner (39:20), is already well on the way to becoming Pharaoh’s closest advisor and second-in-command (41:33–41). The result of his appointment to that position is revealed in the two miniatures on the bottom register: it will ultimately bring about his reconciliation with his brothers and enable him to provide food for the Israelites as well as the Egyptians during the coming famine.

The Golden Haggadah demonstrates the close interaction between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim culture in this period (Epstein 2011: 3; Kogman-Appel 2004). Each scene is framed with the geometric patterns typical of Islamic decoration, for example, and the figures are drawn with the long flowing bodies characteristic of contemporary Christian illuminated Bibles and Gothic art generally.

Such interweaving of influences is particularly appropriate for a narrative about the mutually beneficial engagement of Egyptians and Hebrews.

 

References

Brewer, Douglas J., Donald Redford, and Susan Redford. 1994. Domestic Plants and Animals: The Egyptian Origins (Warminster: Aris & Phillips)

Epstein, Marc Michael. 2011. The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Kogman-Appel, Katrin. 2004. Jewish Book Art Between Islam and Christianity: The Decoration of Hebrew Bibles in Medieval Spain (Leiden: Brill)

Narkiss, Bezalel. 1970. The Golden Haggadah: A Fourteenth-century Illuminated Hebrew Manuscript in the British Museum (London: British Museum)

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