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Pontormo, Joseph's Brothers beg for Help

Key facts
Full title Joseph's Brothers beg for Help
Artist Pontormo
Artist dates 1494 - 1556/7
Series Scenes from the Story of Joseph
Date made about 1515
Medium and support Oil on wood
Dimensions 36.3 × 142.5 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with the aid of the Art Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund), 1979
Inventory number NG6453
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Joseph's Brothers beg for Help

This picture was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of Pierfrancesco Borgherini to Margherita Accaiuoli in 1515. It formed part of a series that decorated their bedroom in the Borgherini palace in Florence. Several paintings by Pontormo and Bacchiacca from the series are now in the National Gallery’s collection.

Joseph’s half-brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. In this episode, the brothers arrive from Canaan (Palestine) to beg for help in the second year of famine (Genesis 42: 1–8). Not recognising their long-lost brother, the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph, who is now Pharaoh’s overseer and sits in command on a classical triumphal chariot. On the right, grain is distributed from Pharaoh’s stores.

The inscriptions on the chariot allude to Christ’s title of Salvator Mundi (‘Saviour of the World’). Joseph has saved the Egyptians from starvation. A parallel was often made between the lives of Joseph and Christ.

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Scenes from the Story of Joseph


These six pictures by Pontormo and Bacchiacca were part of a larger series of panel paintings commissioned to celebrate the marriage of Pierfrancesco Borgherini to Margherita Accaiuoli in 1515. The series decorated the couple’s bedroom in the Borgherini palace in Florence. Francesco Granacci and Andrea del Sarto also contributed to the decorative scheme, which would have been one of the most sumptuous of the time. The paintings, telling the story of Joseph from the Old Testament (Genesis 39), would have been set into the wall panelling and furniture.

Pontormo’s interest in the emerging new style known as Mannerism – a reaction against the harmony, proportion and naturalism of High Renaissance art – is evident in his bright colours, disconcertingly unnatural approach to space, elongated figures and spiralling compositions. Bacchiacca’s scenes are expressive and dramatic but stylistically more conventional.