Bay 41 (Joseph the Patriarch)

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Panel 19 - The Egyptians pouring straw into the Nile

 © Stuart Whatling, 2008

A curious bit of iconography this!

Various authors describe this as the Egyptians planting grain but this is clearly wrong - they are pouring something, not broadcast sowing (compare with the image of a sower in the 6th typological window at Canterbury). The artist has also clearly distinguished between the grains shown in a granary in the adjoining frame and the macaroni-like shapes being poured out here. Finally, the wavy lines at the bottom of the panel are the form used for showing water, not ploughed fields; the equivalent panel at Bourge (see here) is even more explicit in showing the laborers, directed by Joseph himself, dumping wheat into the river. The best explanation for this is that the Egyptians dumped their surplus into the river as a way of announcing to anyone downstream (or along the eastern Mediterranean!) that they had plenty to spare.

Louis Réau, in his classic account of Christian Iconography (1956, Vol. II.I, p.167), gives an excerpt from an Old-Norman vernacular Histoire de Joseph dating to around 1170 which seems to support this;

Si fist le blé vaner
Et la paille Geter
Contreval la rivière.
Par une matinee,
Fu la paille trovée
En la tere d'Ebron
Li païsant la virent
Et disaient sans faille:
Là, don't vient ceste paille
A annone a plenté
De froment et de blé

When the Egyptians had finished gathering in the seven rich harvests that would precede the famine, they dumped the straw and chaff from the winnowing into the Nile, so that people in other lands would see it and know that there was a surplus there in Egypt. This, Réau suggests, was a medieval exegete's way of explaining how Jacob knew to send his sons there in search of food - Genesis 42:1 (KJV) says "Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt..." The problem here is that the verb "saw" only appears in the King James Version - and whatever French version Réau was using. Unfortunately the Vulgate, from which the designer of this window would have been working, has "audiens autem Iacob quod alimenta venderentur in Aegypto..." - in other words Jacob had heard about the surplus - not seen the evidence. Although this serves as a timely warning for why one should always use the Douay-Reims rather than the King James Version for a close reading of medieval iconography, I do not think it invalidates Réau's conclusion, which remains the most convincing explanation of this curious scene.