The Story of the Scribe

A case of Art re-imagining History

If you wondered where the image of the scribe comes from on this page, it’s a detail from an 1874 oil painting. The painter was Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and he titled his work ‘Joseph, Overseer of Pharaoh’s Granaries’. In the painting, Joseph is pale, imperious and effete. He doesn’t look like a man who has been hardened by a decade of slavery plus years in Pharaoh’s jail. The dark-skinned scribe is more what I imagine Joseph to have looked like. So I cut ‘Joseph’ out, and kept the scribe.

Alma-Tadema made a real effort to be historically accurate. All credit to him for that. He took photos of Egyptian artefacts and incorporated them in his paintings, including the wig on Joseph’s head, and the lotus motif you can see behind the scribe. But he didn’t get it entirely right. For one thing, the wig was a woman’s. And secondly, the wig and clothes are New Kingdom era, whereas in Middle Kingdom Egypt, where many scholars place Joseph, he would have been going around bare-chested.

Alma-Tadema was re-imagining history, like me. And the scribe is a writer, like me. So here he is – from an ancient story, to a nineteenth-century painting, to a virtual page. Makes me wonder what Joseph and his contemporaries would make of that. Given the massive efforts elite Egyptians made to preserve their reputations for posterity, I suspect they might be gratified, although surprised.

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