The Story of Joseph

Renaissance art is famous for its religious significance. Works of art during this time were generally commissioned by religious institutions or wealthy citizens donating the works to a religious institution. Most Renaissance paintings are of religious figures or religious stories. These paintings were made to either portray certain Biblical characters or, as is the case with Biagio d’Antonio’s Story of Joseph, to depict a Christian story. Paintings such as The Story of Joseph were very common at the time since they served as graphic representations of Biblical stories for those who could not read. Biagio d’Antonio’s painting, The Story of Joseph, is a typical Renaissance work. The painting’s composition, style, and content are characteristic of Renaissance art.

The Story of Joseph was painted around 1485. It is a tempera and gold leaf on panel painting and was designed as a decorative wall panel. This painting is a series of narratives beginning on the left side and moving towards the bottom left corner, top left corner, back into the center, up to the top right corner, and ending at the bottom right. The painting does not have any atmospheric perspective and the space is very compressed. There are many small details and the painting caters to the viewer’s eye. The figures are very still and monument-like, and while movement is implied, the figures seem as though they are posing. Nothing is idealized in this painting and there is very little concern for realism. The primary concern of this painting is to tell the story of Joseph with as much detail as possible in the space provided. The coloring is limited to mainly different shades of green, red, and yellow. From the shadows we can see that there is a light coming in from the left side of the painting. The artist also made inscriptions on the painting, identifying the main characters in the story.

The iconography of this painting is very important in order to fully understand the meaning of the painting itself. The story of Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, is drawn from the Old Testament. The key points of the story are depicted in this painting. The story begins in the middle of the painting on the left side of the middle column of the building. Here, Jacob is seated with his youngest son by his side and he is telling Joseph to be a shepherd. To the left of this scene Joseph is walking away and directly above Jacob (in the arch of the building) there is the scene of Joseph herding sheep with his brothers. This scene is painted right above the figure of Jacob on his throne and it looks almost as though these are Jacob’s thoughts as he is seated. To the left of the shepherding scene, Joseph’s jealous brothers have thrown him into a well, wanting to kill him. His brothers then decided it would be better to make money off Joseph rather than just kill him, so they decide to sell him off to merchants as a slave and send him to Egypt, which is the scene on the top right of the painting. Inside the building again, in the center of the painting, Joseph’s brothers have brought a blood-smeared coat to their father as evidence that Joseph is dead. What is not presented in this picture is the fact that Joseph becomes an important figure in Egypt over time and he brings other people to Egypt as well. The bottom right corner of the painting shows Joseph on a horse taking people with him to Egypt. The painting is divided into two parts by the middle column of the building in the center. To the left of this middle pillar are the scenes of Joseph when he is alive, and to the right of the post are scenes of Joseph’s life after Jacob thinks he is dead. There is clearly more light on the left side of the painting, even the sky is clearer on the left side. The shadows reveal that the light source is on the left side which is symbolic of a divine light shining on Joseph’s life.

The pictorial devices Biagio d’Antonio uses in this painting are characteristic of Renaissance paintings. This painting was made in 1485, at a time when artists began to paint not only for churches but also for the art market, and also at a time when classical writings became the inspiration for some paintings. Obviously this painting was inspired by the story of Joseph from the Old Testament. This painting almost has a Northern Renaissance style to it more than Italian Renaissance. Northern Renaissance paintings are not very atmospheric; they privilege the eye over the body and these artists usually embedded the surface of the painting with details. These devices can be seen in Robert Campin’s Merode Altarpiece, which was painted around 1425. The Merode Altarpiece is a panel painting meant to stimulate private prayer. The center of this panel painting shows the main scene of the conception of Christ in a contemporary Flemish house. Like The Story of Joseph, Robert Campin’s piece is strongly symbolic and theological. There is a lot of visual information, many details, and each object is carefully crafted so the viewer can notice it. Campin and d’Antonio use many similar pictorial strategies. The coloring is limited to just different shades of two or three colors and the figures appear as though they are completely still, no movement is stressed. Campin’s painting is not in one-point perspective and the whole painting is in a box-like space. The composition of The Story of Joseph is much like that of Campin’s Merode Altarpiece.

Renaissance art is generally concentrated on religion. Artwork of this time was usually made for churches and depicted some religious figure or story. These works of art were sometimes made to stimulate prayer, and sometimes to provide a visualization of the Catholic mass or to explain certain Biblical stories for the illiterate. Biagio d’Antonio’s painting, The Story of Joseph, is a typical Renaissance painting not only because of its content, but also because of the different techniques the artist used to make the painting.

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