Vol. I, fol. 34: The initial word Vayeshev (וישב, And Jacob dwelt) of this parashah (Gen. 37:1-40:23) is written at the top of the illustrated panel in gold leaf on a green ground, set below the explicit of Vayishlach (חסלת וישלח יעקב) and its haftarah (ומפטירין בתרי עשר חזון עובדיה וגו').
The panel depicts the selling of Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:23-28), illustrating the biblical text and the commentary (I:34-35). In the centre of the composition Joseph, sitting at the edge of the well, is being stripped of his red coat by Simeon, one of his four brothers (commentary I:34v, 3rd column, following Gen. Rabbah, 84:16), who is also pushing his head down. Joseph is lifting his left leg either to enter or to leave the well. On the left, a group of four Ishmaelites (commentary I:35, 2nd column) with two camels are offering to buy him. The first is holding a coin in his left hand and a purse dangles from his right wrist. The figure on the left has a sack on his shoulder.
In the Bible, the stripping off the coat (Gen. 37:23) precedes throwing Joseph into the well (Gen. 37:24) and taking him out to sell to the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:28). However, Joseph's ambiguous pose with one leg raised forms a connection between the episodes and makes a conflated illustration possible. The figures fill the frame, but some blue ground can be seen. Most figures wear green tunics, except for one brother in magenta and another on the right who wears a red tunic below a green chlamys and holds a scroll. The four brothers are wearing pointed Jewish hats, two of which were in gold leaf. One camel is coloured magenta, the other is uncoloured.
Plummet inscriptions in Latin by the 13th-century hand, and by a later hand in Hebrew:
- Upper margin in square script, above the panel: וישב (Vayeshev), and a trial in display script: שב]]וי;
- Vend[iderunt] [io]sef [i]s[mahelitis](?) ex[trahentes eu](m)[de] cis[terna] (Gen. 37:28).
J | Joseph | Joseph, cast into pit (Gen. 37:24)
J | Joseph | Joseph, taken from pit (Gen. 37:28)
J | Joseph | Joseph, sold to Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:28)
O | Ornamentation: | Initial word, framed | Initial word panel (Not used; see: Initial word panel, Illustrative, Initial word panel, decorative)
The depiction is based on Rashi's commentary according to which "Simeon himself had thrown him into the pit" (commentary I:34v, 3rd column; Gen. Rabbah 84:16). Indeed we see him pushing Joseph's head down with his right hand and pulling off his red garment with his left. This scene is a conflation with the next where merchants with camels on the left are offering money to buy Joseph. The brothers are common to both scenes, and so is Joseph: his upper body is being pushed into the pit, while his left leg is lifted as if to climb out of the pit, if compared to similar scenes (figs. 2, 3). Who are the merchants? According to Rashi and the Bible the merchants were Ishmaelites, although the Bible also mentions alternately Ishmaelites and Midianites (Gen. 37:28, 36; 39:1). Rashi explains these inconsistencies by listing a number of consecutive sales (I:35, top 2nd column; Tanchuma Buber, Vayeshev 13). A comparable depiction is found in the Munich Psalter, a Latin manuscript from Gloucester (?), England, c.1210 (fig. 2).
Fig. 1: Stripping off Joseph's coat; Joseph being thrown into the pit ; Lifting Joseph out of the pit; Selling Joseph, Munich Rashi's Commentary on the Bible, Munich, BSB Cod. hebr. 5, I:34
Fig. 2: Lifting Joseph out of the pit, TheMunich Psalter, Gloucester (?), 1210, Munich, BSB clm 835, fol. 13v, lower register, (Morgan 1982, Cat. 23, fig. 79)
In the centre Joseph is being pulled out of the pit by one of his brothers, his left leg over the edge. He is flanked on the left by his brothers and on the right by a group of merchants who are handing them a purse of money. In contrast to our illustration this is a coherent final scene.
Fig. 3: Lifting Joseph out of the pit, mosaic, Venice, St. Mark's Basilica, 1200-10, (Demus 1984, colour pl. 53)
Fig. 4: Joseph being thrown into the pit, mosaic, Venice, St. Mark's Basilica, 1200-10 (Demus 1984, colour pl. 55)
Similarly, in the mosaics in Venice of 1200-10, Joseph is being lifted out of the pit by three brothers, his left leg dangling over the edge (fig. 3). The scene is clearly identified as such because throwing Joseph into the pit shows three brothers pushing him down (fig. 4). This is an earliar scene, separately depicted. Another separate scene depicting the actual sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites including handing over the purse, is found on a single leaf, part of a Psalter painted in Oxford by William de Brailles (fig. 5; Morgan 1982, Cat. 71).
Fig. 5: Joseph sold by his brothers By William de Brailles Oxford, 1230-40 Paris, MMT (Bridgeman Art Library) www.bridgemanart.com MMT 215686 (pictures)