School of Prague, early 17th century

The Triumph of Joseph in Eygypt

66 x 80.5 cm. (26 x 31 1116)
c. 1600. Oil on copper. Inscribed on the phylactery : SALVATOREM [MUNDI].

· USA, private collection.

"Pharoah had a dream." He dreamt of seven well-favored and fat cows which were devoured by seven ill-favored and lean cows. When no one could explain the meaning of this dream to him, the chief butler remembered a young Hebrew whom he had met in prison. The pharaoh had Joseph brought forward who told him that the fat cows represented years of plenty and the lean cattle, years of famine. He advised the pharaoh to take up a fifth of the harvest during the years of plenty in order to have a reserve in storage when food would be lacking. Whereupon Pharoah gave Joseph authority over his kingdom, saying: “‘See, I have set thee over all the land of Egypt.’ And Pharoah took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; And he made him to ride in the second chariot which he had; and they cried before him, Bow the knee: and he made him ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41: 41-43).

The rest of the conversation between Pharoah and Joseph is found in the Clementine Vulgate (Genesis 41:45) : “Vertitque nomen ejus, et vocavit eum, lingua ægyptiaca, Salvatorem mundi.” That is: “And Pharoah also changed his name and called him in the Egyptian language, the Savior of the world.” 

The inscription on the phylactery, “salvatorem,” makes it possible to identify the scene painted on our large copper as the Triumph of Joseph in Egypt, which, in the Christian tradition, prefigured the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Wearing a white turban with feathers, a golden chain around his neck, and carrying the baton of command in his right hand, Joseph is seated in an elaborately sculpted golden carriage drawn by four horses in sumptuous harness. The pharaoh, also sporting a white turban, rides by his side and is recognizable by his ermine cape. The carriage is preceded by a procession formed of musicians on foot and on horseback, heralds, cavaliers, and soldiers, as well as sign porters and flag bearers. One flag is red with a golden cow. Some brandish wheat shafts or cheer Joseph. All around, the Egyptians prostrate themselves, dance to the sound of the orchestra perched on a platform, or simply stop in curiosity. Through streets flanked by spectacular architecture, the parade winds its way to a green marble triumphal arch inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome, but with its gilding and a voluted frontispiece, has more in common with the ephemeral constructions raised in cities for the ceremonial entries of kings and princes.

The style of this work, which is not really a religious scene, nor really a landscape either, proves as eclectic and heterogeneous as the imaginary architecture, while bringing together diverse trends of European Mannerism. The simulated oval stucco frame comes from the repertory of the School of Fontainebleau, the evanescent antiquating constructions blending into each other in the background make one think of the Niccolò dell’Abate, while the closest buildings with their windows, pilasters, and cupolas, as well as grand columns, are more in line with Paul Vredeman de Vries and François de Nomé. While the procession’s iconography is based on that of Triumphs, which have been highly valued since the Renaissance for celebrating virtues, love, or the Church, its handling is original and hitherto unknown, as the line is not displayed in a frieze, but rather recedes into the back and center of the composition marked by the polychrome arch. Not as elongated as those of Bartholomeus Spranger, the figures nonetheless adopt his characteristic pronounced contrapposto and dancing poses. Their expressive body language, small size, and layered distribution can also be found in Gillis van Valckenborch who painted similar subjects, such as The Entry of the Queen of Sheba into Jerusalem (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum) or The Return of Jephthah (private collection).

Everything is modeled with an uneven loose brush, sometimes full and approximate, especially in the architecture, and in other places, so delicate that the forms seem to be caught up in mist. The refined limpid coloring, dominated by crimson, ochre, bluish grey, and malachite green, contributes to the exquisite charm of this picture which was certainly intended for a private room or study. The stucco framing would seem to indicate that it was to be integrated into a decorative scheme where it would have been placed sufficiently low as to allow one to admire the extreme precision and grace of the miniature figures.

Inspired by very diverse influences, some of which were apparently transmitted via engravings, the very individualized style of our copper is that of an experienced artist who remains to be identified. Nonetheless, the reminiscences of the School of Fontainebleau, southern Flemish painting, Italy, and German regions, lead us to seek the painter among the masters working in the Empire at the turn of the 16th and 17th century, especially at Rudolph II’s court.


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