Yesterday at the Getty Center, I spent most of my time in the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, reacquainting myself with old friends. One painting that fascinated me was “The Story of Joseph” (circa 1485), attributed to the Florentine Biagio d’Antonio, which in foreground and background gives several early episodes of the tale of Joseph from the Old Testament. By focusing on different parts of the image, one saw different scenes from the story.
The following is the description of the painting from the Getty Center website:
Drawn from the Old Testament, a series of continuous narratives depicts episodes from the life of Joseph, the favorite son of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob. To make the story easier to follow, Biagio d’Antonio included inscriptions identifying the principal characters.
In the left-hand loggia, Jacob, seated on a throne, sends Joseph to his half-brothers tending sheep in the field. In the far left corner, the brothers, jealous of their father’s love for Joseph, strip him of his jacket and throw him into a pit. Passing merchants purchase the young boy from his brothers for twenty pieces of silver. In the background to the right, the merchants board the ship that will take them and their cargo to Egypt. In the right-hand loggia, the brothers show a blood-smeared coat to their father as evidence that Joseph is dead. With his head in his hand, Jacob mourns his son, whom he believes to be dead.
It’s almost as if this were a precursor to the cinema by telling a detailed story in a single still image. One of the things I love most about Medieval and Renaissance painting are the picturesque landscape backgrounds, which lend an aura of fantasy.
Many people (Martine among them) don’t care for the repetitive Biblical themes of the art of the period. What interests me is the almost endless variety within a familiar, given subject matter.