Run Joseph, Run

Updated: Feb 1, 2021



Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife Balthasar Griessmann Date: second half 17th century Culture: Austrian Medium: Ivory Dimensions: 311/16 x 67/8 in. Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, New York, USA

'Joseph and Potiphar's Wife' by Balthasar Griessmann depicts a scene from Genesis 39:1-20. In this text of the Hebrew Bible, the central figure, Joseph, is taken as a servant to Egypt by a courtier of Pharaoh, Potiphar. After gaining high approval by his master, he is put in charge of his master's household and all that he owned. While serving his master, Joseph had gained the interest of his master's wife because he was well built and handsome. Yet Joseph was faithful to his master and his work, and so when the master's wife tried to bed him, he would not commit this sin before God. After much frustration, his master's wife had lied to her servants and husband that Joseph had attempted to rape her. This incident had led up to his master, sending Joseph to prison.

For his work, Griessman decided to pick one scene within the text that functioned as the climax of the story, when Potiphar's wife tried to force Joseph into bed with her. When it comes to regards to the text, the reader is only told of what the wife demands of Joseph and that she is frustrated when he runs away while also managing to tear a piece of Joseph's garment. The reader is left to either read the text and move on or imagine the scene on their own, but the text gives off no sense of a tone, so guessing how this frustration and anger occurred can be confusing to some. In the text, there is only mention of the wife's extreme kindness with Joseph, but in his piece, Griessman depicts the wife's nudity and the bed to represent how she attempted to seduce Joseph. The bed seems to be unmade; there is no one else in the room except for Joseph and herself, creating an intimate atmosphere. Yet it is the sculpture's central area that defers from the rest of the piece that captures a viewer's attention. The firm grasp of Potiphar's wife on Joseph's garment has a different definition; it seems like the artist used a different engraving technique in this area to make it look like it's popping out of the flat surface. It's as if Joseph is stepping out of the sculpture, rushing to leave the wife's room to get away from her, he wants to be anywhere but in the sculpture, anywhere but her room.

As mentioned before, the climax of the scripture's story is when Potiphar's wife confronts Joseph, so I believe the artist chose to focus his work on this scene. Another reason why I think the artist chose to depict this scene is to demonstrate the example of gender roles. In old scriptures, typically, it is the man who can do no wrong; they are faithful and kind, which is why God chooses to speak to them and chooses them to do his will. In this piece, it is the woman who wants to commit adultery; she is the one who is sexually frustrated and tries to submit a man of loyalty to her selfish needs and desire, ultimately, lead this man into sin. Joseph's firm grasp on his clothing and the movement of his hair demonstrates how determined he is to get away from Potiphar's wife. His determination is the artist's way of depicting Joseph as a good man who does not give in to temptation. The third reason why Griessman chooses to depict this part of the Bible is to bring attention to a religious story. Art allows for an artist to express themselves, by choosing to surround his artwork with a scripture passage, there is room for viewers to question the artist. Who they are, what they believe in, what is important to them. Or just the simple wondering of whether the artist is religious himself and so this scripture story may be of significant meaning to him. By recreating a scene that can be read about in a physical form, the Hebrew Bible, in this case, also promotes for viewers to take some time for themselves and read the whole passage that the artwork is focused around. Artwork can work as a form of 'promotion.'

I think this artwork is thought-provoking, and the reason for this is because I decided to take a look at this piece before reading the scripture. When I first observed it, I thought that the piece was depicting an attempted rape in which the woman was trying to hold the man back so that he could not escape. This made me continue to the scripture text with a closed mind in which I was convinced that I already knew what the scripture was going to be about. Yet after reading the text, I came back to the artwork with a fresh set of eyes in which the whole entity of the sculpture changed. I saw both of the figures' facial expressions differently, Where I saw fear, I now saw frustration and saw anger, and I soon saw determination. I enjoyed the artist's choice in his sculpture, mostly because of what I had mentioned earlier about the engraved area of arms. This all goes to say that because of my prejudiced thought; I found this artwork surprising because it was about something that I had absolutely no idea of. I believe the artist did a great job of interpreting Genesis 39:1-20 because of how he was able to create movement in the sculpture. The change can set up a tone within the piece, where there is a feeling of rustling against time, one of the figures wants to get the scene over while the other wants time to stop time and keep the other in place. Joseph's dignity has been maintained, and Potiphar's wife's evil act will be engraved forever.

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