I have finally submitted my Genesis essay so I thought I would share some of it with you. I looked at the women of Genesis in contemporary scholarship with reference to art. I focused more on feminist narrative criticism then appealed to some other post biblical literature to recover the woman’s voice drawing mainly on the analyses of feminist theologian Alice Bach (1993,1997). I then supported her inter-texual work with references to six seventeenth century paintings of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. So here are a few.
Further searching for her story in art – ‘hands and face’
I would like to further explore Bach’s mission of uncovering the woman’s story in Joseph’s story. How have artists expanded, contracted or flattened the woman and her story? Questions can be asked such as: have they reinscribed or challenged the gender, cultural and political ideology of the text; how has the work appropriated elements from their own culture such as clothing and hairstyles, the use of colour, manner and location? All interesting and meaningful, however I simply wish to briefly look for the voice of the woman – a reconstruction or expansion of the woman’s story within the man’s story.
The works that capture my attention are those which highlight the hands and the face of Potiphar’s wife. Firstly, the works of Ludovico Cardi called Cigoli 1610, and Cignani Carlo, 1678-80. These two works are similar in that they portray an entreating, tender and affectionate hand reaching for Joseph’s face and likewise the youthful beautiful face of Potiphar’s wife. Her expression and tenderness of gesture counteracts the textual texts impression of a crafty, lustful woman seeking only to fulfil her desire without any genuine affection for Joseph. Yet the tension is present in the painting as one hand is tender and entreats, whereas the other hand grasps Joseph’s coat. In Ludovico Joseph looks almost playful and not at all repulsed by Potiphar’s wife. In Barbiera the tension is stronger. Joseph’s strong, muscled arms, which hint at work and masculine appeal, grabs at the tender arm of the beautiful dazzling red-haired wife. He appears to have recognized that he must without further hesitation conclusively reject the woman.
Secondly, the exquisite work of Cignani Carlo, 1678-80. The hands of the youthful, fresh, hopeful, beautiful woman embrace the youthful, boyishly full-haired Joseph. This is no older, unattractive woman. Joseph’s raised hands on the other hand seems to signal that he would not even touch what is his master’s property however how beguiling.
These three paintings pull the eyes to the woman’s beauty, youth, tenderness and unapologetic sensuality displayed by her nude breasts. Joseph, in all three paintings, looks away from the enchanting seductress and the pleasures her body offers. However, the artist’s invites the viewer to feast on the voluptuous sensuality of the woman’s body and the rich colours of the paintings. The biblical sex object is very much focalized visually so that what is taboo for Joseph is a feast for us.
The paintings challenge the text’s framing of an unattractive aggressive female. The dual characters are very central and immediate. Focus is on the psychology of the action and opposing actors. There are no supporting actors included. Both the woman and man are located in a bed without reference to other relationships such as the husband-wife/wife-servants/Joseph-servants-Potiphar/ Joseph-God-Potiphar or any such inclusions which would contextualize the scene and embrace the entire narrative. The entire narrative is thus flattened to that of a youthful enticing seductress and the resisting young man. The artists appear to interpret the story in purely human terms with little or rather, no obvious allusion to the hand of God at work.