Textiles like this one are thought to have been produced by Copts (Christian Egyptians) whose designs and motifs influenced the visual repertoire of the early Islamic period. This roundel utilizes explicitly Christian imagery—the life of Joseph, son of Jacob. The early life of Joseph appears to have been a popular source of imagery in Egypt, likely because the narrative largely takes place in that region. Roundels like this were often placed near the shoulders of a child’s garment, and the imagery here of Joseph’s childhood may have been considered as not only an appropriate choice for a child’s garment but also a protective one.
This artwork is meant to be viewed from right to left. Scroll left to view more.
Use your arrow keys to navigate the tabs below, and your tab key to choose an item
Title:Roundel Illustrating Episodes from the Biblical Story of Joseph
Geography:Attributed to Egypt
Medium:Linen, wool; tapestry weave
Dimensions:Textile: Diam. 10 1/4 in. (26.1 cm) Mount: H. 14 5/8 in. (37.1 cm) W. 15 3/8 in. (39.1 cm) D. 1 7/8 in. (4.8 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Charles K. and Irma B. Wilkinson, 1963
A popular theme on roundels for tunics was the Old Testament story of Joseph. Inspired by silk weavings, the nine events shown here are from Genesis 37:9-36, beginning with the second dream of Joseph in the central medallion, where the bowing sun and moon are visible above his reclining figure, and ending with his purchase by Potiphar at the upper right.
The present roundel was originally sewn onto a tunic as a shoulder or skirt segmentum, in a manner illustrated by a well-preserved tunic in London. It belongs to a large group of tunic ornaments decorated with scenes of the Old testament figure Joseph. All are tapestry woven in seperate sets consisting of small and large roundels, shoulder bands, and sleeve bands, and all were applied. They also share the same color scheme: a red ground with figures exeuted in beige, green, blue and ochre. Also the selection of the scenes, usually from the 37th chapter of the Book of Genesis, relates the group.
In this roundel, a cycle of nine events (Genesis 37.9–36) is represented, starting with Joseph's second dream in the central medallion and continuing with eight other scenes from the top left counterclockwise in the main field (Joseph leaves Jacob for Shechen; he is directed toward the town of Dothan, is placed in a well, his stained coat is found, and he sold to the Ishmaelites; Reuben laments Joseph; Joseph is brought to Egypt, and sold to Potiphar). The ground around the figures is filled with scattered floral motifs, birds and animals, and also some letters. A triple border of colorful, stepped, scrolled, and bead-and-reel bands frame the piece.
It is certain that the overall appearance of the New York roundel and the entire group of Joseph tapestries—especially their color scheme and ornamental borders—was inspired by silk weavings such as the Annunciation and the Nativity silks in the Vatican that were made sometime in the course of the 6th century' Otherwise. the Joseph tapestries are the product of Egyptian tapestry weavers. The narrative sequence and the wealth of descriptive detail in these tapestries is without parallel among extant silks. The source for the original design of these tapestries may have been a manuscript, or, as is even more likely, a painted resist-dyed curtain. Such curtains often employed extensive Old and New Testament narrative cycles profusely inscribed with names and biblical and scriptural quotations. The lettering that is still recognizable in many Joseph tapestries may be a remnant of such titles. Difficult to execute in the tapestry technique, these minute inscriptions soon became distorted and even garbled.
Considering the size of this group of tunic ornaments, it is particularly regrettable that no more is known of their origin. They seem to have been found mainly in Upper Egypt in the area around Akhmim. However, it is not known whether they came from one or several locations, or from how many graves, and whether these were poor or rich burials. Even if the particular revererance for Joseph found among the Christians and the Jews in Egypt would explain the general popularity and demand for this subject, the possibility remains that some special circumstance lies behind the invention of the original set of these extraordinairy tunic ornaments. Stylistic comparison with other textiles suggests that the Joseph tapestries were originally designed in the late 6th and early 7th century. They continued to be made for some time, those made later becoming more and more stylized. The New York roundel dates to a relatively early, 7th century phase of this process.
1.Technical information: warp: linen (S-spun, 2-plied Z); weft: red, blue, green, yellow, black wool (all S-spun), linen (S-spun). Tapestry weave over I warp.
2. Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. 136.1891 (Kendrick, A.F. Catalogue of Textiles from the Burying Grounds in Egypt. Victoria and Albert Museum. vols I–III. London 1920–22).
3. At least 54 tunic ornaments decorated with the Story of Joseph have been identified (Abdel-Malik, L. Joseph Textiles and Related Coptic Textiles. Ann Arbor, 1980); see also Vikan, G. "Joseph Iconograpy on Coptic Textiles," in Gesta 18/1, 1979, pp. 99–108; and Nauert, C. Koptische Textilkunst im Spatantiken Agypten. Die Sammlung Rautenstrauch im Stadlichen Museum Simeonstift Trier. Trier, 1978, pp. 24–31, figs. 44–6.
4. See also MMA 89.18.94.
5. Especially Vikan 1979 (note 3).
6. For the everview see Kendrick 1922 (note 2), pp. 60–8.
Charles K. and Irma B. Wilkinson, Sharon, CT (by 1960–63; gifted to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century," November 19, 1977–February 12, 1978, no. 412.
Providence, RI. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design. "Beyond the Pharaohs: Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th Centuries A.D.," February 10, 1989–April 16, 1989, no. 69.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Textiles of Late Antiquity," December 14, 1995–April 7, 1996, no.. 29.
Wietzmann, K., ed. "Late Antique and early Christian Art, 3rd–7th century." In Age of Spirituality. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979. no. 412, pp. 460–61, ill. (b/w).
Friedman, Florence D. "Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th Centuries AD." In Beyond the Pharaohs. Providence, R.I.: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1989. no. 69, pp. 19, 160–61, ill. p. 19 (color), p. 161 (b/w).
Stauffer, Annmarie. Textiles of Late Antiquity. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995. no. 29, listed p. 45, ill. p. 37 (color).
The Met Collection API is where all makers, creators, researchers, and dreamers can now connect to the most up-to-date data and images for more than 470,000 artworks in The Met collection. As part of The Met’s Open Access program, the data is available for unrestricted commercial and noncommercial use without permission or fee.
We continue to research and examine historical and cultural context for objects in The Met collection. If you have comments or questions about this object record, please complete and submit this form. The Museum looks forward to receiving your comments.
The Met's collection of Islamic art is one of the most comprehensive in the world and ranges in date from the seventh to the twenty-first century. Its more than 15,000 objects reflect the great diversity and range of the cultural traditions from Spain to Indonesia.