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Coecke van Aelst, Pieter - VM - Botke & Kootte


Pieter Coecke van Aelst: Potiphar´s Wife

Potiphar’s Wife
by Klazina Dieuwke Botke and Tanja Kootte
In the second quarter of the 16th century, Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1512-1550) painted a panel with the story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar. Potiphar, commander of the body-guards of the pharaoh, had bought Joseph, the son of Jacob, as a servant and had accorded him an important function in his household. The wife of Potiphar found this slave attractive and one day, when nobody was around, she tried to seduce him. Upright Joseph refused this and tried to get away as fast as possible. However, in his hasty flight he had to leave behind his cloak (Genesis 39). This dramatic climax of the story has been depicted in the painting. Joseph is running out of the bedroom and the woman, only clad with a see-through veil, has jumped out of the bed and is running after him. She manages to grasp his mantle. In order to escape, Joseph has to let go of it.
The running movement of both figures and the fluttering garments lend a lot of energy to this scene. Special details on the painting are the two objects in front of the bed that have fallen over in the fast action. They have a symbolic meaning. The candlestick and the pitcher suggest sexual innuendo. The broken candle in the candlestick may hint at the refusal of Joseph to become sexually entangled with Potiphar’s wife. A painting with erotic overtones like this was justified in its time by its moral content, as Joseph serves as an example of self-control, chastity and faithfulness.
The composition chosen by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, who lived and worked in Antwerp, seems to be inspired by one of the famous frescoes by Raphael in the Loggia of the Vatican. Possibly the painter saw this fresco on his journey to Italy in 1525-1526 or he may have known one of the many prints that were made after it. Raphael’s depiction is part of a series on the life of Joseph, while Coecke van Aelst shows various events in the life of Joseph in one painting.
We can see the sequel to the scene through the square opening in the door on the right. Potiphar stands next to his wife who holds Joseph’s garment as evidence of his alleged transgression. Joseph is standing opposite to them, held fast by two soldiers. This shows the moment when Potiphar’s wife takes revenge on Joseph by reversing the roles in her story: she accuses him of an attempt to seduce her. When she shows his coat to her husband, he instantly believes her. ‘The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to insult me; but as soon as I raised my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me, and fled outside’ (NRSV). Potiphar enraged by his wife’s words, orders Joseph to be taken away and locked up.
In a subtle fashion two more occurrences in the life of Joseph are portrayed on the wall in the back of the bedroom. To the left a scene can be seen from Joseph’s youth. Here a goat is killed by Joseph’s brothers in order to stain Joseph’s coat with its blood. In this way they convinced their father that his favourite son had been devoured by a wild beast. To the right a future event is depicted, namely the filling of a sack of wheat. This points to the reunion of Joseph, who in the meantime had become Viceroy of Egypt, with his brothers, when they come to Egypt to buy wheat. This last scene lets the viewer know that, however seductive Potiphar’s wife was, the constancy of Joseph will be rewarded in the end. 
From the book Bijbelse vrouwen in de kunst by Klazina Diewke Botke, Tanja Kootte and Guus van den Hout, Museum Catharijneconvent – Utrecht / Waanders Uitgevers – Zwolle, 2006.
Translation: Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker
Photo: Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.
Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, the Netherlands, is located in a beautiful medieval monastery near the Dom. The permanent collection comprises unique historical and art-historical exhibits ranging from the early mediaeval period to the 21st century. This collection offers an insight into the Christian art and cultural history of the Netherlands and its influence on Dutch
ArtWay Visual Meditation June 6, 2010