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Vienna Genesis

Joseph and Potiphar's Wife

Syria, 6th century 
Nationalbibliothek in Vienna

The Vienna Genesis is the most sumptuous manuscript to survive from the Early Christian period. It is actually a luxurious picture book in which the abbreviated Septuagint text, written in large silver uncials, occupies the upper half of each page and illustrations of the story fill the bottom. Originally, some 400 separate scenes traced the story of Genesis on 96 folios; only a quarter of the codex remains, but these 24 leaves are well preserved. Many elements of the miniatures are based not on the Bible itself but on popular elaborations of the Genesis text. The lively episode of Joseph and Potiphar's wife, for example, includes a curious woman, dressed in blue, examining a string. She has been identified as the astrologer who, according to Jewish commentaries, foretold that Joseph would father the descendants of Potiphar's wife. The Vienna Genesis is so rich in such digressions that scholars have proposed its illustrations were copied from a Jewish paraphrase. Several artists, perhaps as many as six or eight, shared in the production of this rich cycle. At one extreme is the anecdotal style of the Deluge, and Eliezer and Rebecca; in contrast is the freer, more suggestive manner of the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh. All of the illustrators worked in an authentic Late Antique style. They carefully differentiated the figures to establish physical and psychological individuality, portrayed a variety of evocative gestures, and introduced a uniform light that unites the elements in a single environment. The style is akin to that of the Rossano Gospels and Codex Sinopensis, but in the Vienna Genesis there is greater emphasis on setting and naturalistic detail. Lack of clarity in details of costume and architecture, and discrepancies between certain miniatures and the accompanying text have led most scholars to conclude that the Vienna Genesis was copied from an earlier model. The theory held by many that the prototype was a roll with a continuous frieze must be abandoned in favor of the thesis that the model was illustrated with individual pictures placed within the columns of text, as in the Cotton Genesis. Because of its antique character, early critics assigned the Vienna manuscript to the fourth century. Scholars now concur, however, that it was produced in the sixth, or possibly even early seventh, century. A consensus favors Syria or Palestine as the place of origin. By the fourteenth century it was in Venice, and by 1664 it was part of the imperial library in Vienna.

The Story of Jacob

Rebecca and Eliezer at the Well

The Deluge

 The Blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh

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