Parashat Vayigash opens with Yehuda's impassioned speech on behalf of Binyamin. The three artworks displayed here, by Willem de Poorter,1James Tissot,2 and Arent de Gelder,3 all illustrate the moving scene. The artists differ both in their choice of which characters to include and in how they depict those characters, allowing for different readings of both Yehuda and Yosef and, thus, of the reconciliation as a whole.
De Poorter's sets the scene in a dark room and fills his image with figures. A servant points to the silver goblet and accuses the brothers of theft, while a richly robed Yosef stands opposite and listens. Yehuda and three of the brothers kneel on the floor, their faces lifted towards Yosef. In the background, several unknown characters, perhaps Yosef's servants or more of the brothers, watch the proceedings.
In contrast to the other artists, Tissot chooses softer colors and fills his painting with light. The effect removes much of the tension and emotion suggested by the other portrayals. Unlike De Poorter, he depicts just Yosef and Yehuda. Yehuda is no longer kneeling or imploring, but rather sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking calm and collected. Yosef, for his part, is not towering over the accused, but sitting on a step, just one level above Yehuda. His chin rests on his hand as he pensively contemplates his brother's words.
De Gelder's painting, like Tissot's, focuses on just Yosef and Yehuda, but resembles more of a portrait than a Biblical scene. Yehuda kneels in front of his brother, his hands clasped in front of him in a gesture of pleading. He is placed in a dark corner of the image, and the viewer can see little more than his anguished face, begging for mercy. Yosef stands above him, grasping the silver goblet in his hand. He turns towards Yehuda, his gaze concerned and filled with emotion.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
Both De Poorter and De Gelder portray Yehuda in a posture of submission, kneeling before Yosef. Moreover, De Gelder's Yehuda is clearly distressed. His face cries out his pain and one can almost hear him imploring Yosef. Tissot's Yehuda, in contrast, does not give off the same feeling of subservience or desperate beseeching. He sits on the floor, seemingly unruffled, counting on his fingers as he speaks and states his various points.
What do we know of the emotions of Yehuda as described in Tanakh? Does he stand meek and pleading before Yosef, hoping to earn his compassion as he speaks of his elderly father?4 Or, is he confident in the innocence of Binyamin, and thus able to speak to Yosef more as an equal? Perhaps one might go even further, and suggest that Yehuda is aware of Yosef's role in the framing, and, as such, stands before him defiant and accusing.5 See Yehuda's Oration for more.
While both De Gelder and Tissot depict just Yosef and Yehuda in their scene, De Poorter includes several more of the brothers and other bystanders as well. Who was present when Yehuda approached Yosef? Was he alone or was he accompanied by others? The Biblical text is sparse enough to allow for both possibilities.6 The difference might relate both to how one perceives the brothers and how one understands Yehuda's goals in speaking. Were the brothers united in their desire to protect Binyamin,7 and ready to back up Yehuda if necessary, or did only Yehuda feel responsible?8 Did Yehuda want the strength and support provided by the brothers' presence,9 or did he prefer for tactical reasons to make his case in private?10 See The Messages of Yehuda's Oration for elaboration.
De Gelder's Yosef is filled with emotion, his face a mix of sadness and compassion. Tissot's Yosef, in contrast, is contemplative, and looks almost as if he is trying to figure something out. What was Yosef thinking as he listened to Yehuda? Did Yehuda's words reveal to Yosef hitherto unknown facts that made him see the sale or his brothers in a new light?11 Did Yosef find himself forced to rethink his original strategy of how to deal with his brothers?12 Had he expected Yehuda to stand up and protect Binyamin, or was he surprised, and moved, by Yehuda's passionate plea? And, what was it that moved him – Yehuda's offer to be enslaved in Binyamin's stead or news of his aging father? For elaboration, see Why did Yosef Frame Binyamin?