(b. 1494, Pontormo, d. 1557, Firenze)

Joseph in Egypt

Oil on wood, 96 x 109 cm
National Gallery, London

The painting belongs to the series of four entitled Scenes from the Life of Joseph the Hebrew, now in the National Gallery, London. These works, together with others by Andrea del Sarto, Francesco Granacci, Bachiacca and Franciabigio, were intended for the decoration of the nuptial chamber of Francesco Borgherini and Margherita Acciaioli, who married in 1515. The group of fourteen paintings, broken up at the end of the 16th century, was contained within a wooden decoration made by Baccio d'Agnolo.

In this panel the thesis proposed by Mannerism is fully elaborated: the painter is no longer to be bound by perspective, or by the necessity of presenting his subject in a rational, objective manner. He may use light and colour, chiaroscuro and proportion as he pleases; he may borrow from any source he chooses; the only obligation upon him is to create an interesting design, expressive of the ideas inherent in the subject, and the various parts need bear no relationship to each other. The colour must be evocative and beautiful in itself.

This work, traditionally entitled Joseph in Egypt, depicts the most significant episodes of Joseph reuniting with his family of origin. The painting is divided into four distinct zones. In the left foreground Joseph presents his family, who he invited to move to Egypt, to the pharaoh; according to Vasari, the boy with dark cloak and brown tunic sitting on the first step of the stairs on which the figures are arranged, is a portrait of the young Bronzino. On the right, Joseph is seen sitting on a triumphal cart pulled by three putti; hoisting himself up with his left arm and clutching firmly onto a putto with the other, he bends toward a kneeling figure who is presenting him a petition or reading him a message; a fifth putto, wrapped in a piece of cloth blown by the wind, dominates the scene from the top of a column, appearing to mime the gesture of one of the two half-living statues represented in the top left and centre of the painting. A restless crowd, curious to see what is going on, throngs the adjacent space between the two buildings in the background. Other mysterious figures, resting against one of the large boulders that dominate the landscape, turn their attention toward the action in the foreground.

The clothes, expressions and features of all these figures are inspired by northern European painting, as is the large castle and surrounding trees depicted in the background. On the unrailed staircase of the imposing cylindrical building to the right, Joseph takes one of his children by the hand; higher up, the other is greeted affectionately by his mother. Lastly, Joseph and his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are portrayed inside the room at the top of the building, where Jacob, now old and near to death, imparts his paternal blessing. The curious combination of all these elements confers to the painting an anomalous and intriguing quality.