Book Cover Exterior with Yusuf (Joseph) and His Brothers

Book Cover Exterior with Yusuf (Joseph) and His Brothers

18th century

The story of Joseph forms part of Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy texts. The chapter dedicated to Joseph (Yusuf in Arabic) in the Qur'an is the most sustained narrative in the Muslim holy book. There was an interest in elaborating on the Qur'anic narrative, however, and one of the most famous literary works based on this story was the poet Jami's Yusuf and Zulaykha, written in Persian in 1483.

The Qur'an refers to Yusuf's seduction at the hand of the wife of the ruler of Egypt, as does the biblical narrative. In Jami's poem, however, this female character receives a name, Zulaykha, as well as a more complex personality. She is a beautiful young woman who falls in love with Yusuf when she sees him in a dream. She must then endure many trials and overcome numerous obstacles to achieve a physical and spiritual union with her true love.

This love story was immensely popular and versions of it formed part of literary anthologies, including the Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones) of Jami and Sa'di's Bustan (Orchard). The Yusuf story epitomizes the potential to understand love on both literal and metaphorical levels. Yusuf and Zulaykha engage in a melodramatic, sometimes tragic romance, but we can come to understand both figures, especially Yusuf,  as exemplars of piety, virtue and the beauty of spiritual love.

Numerous illustrations of the Yusuf story exist; in fact, surviving images indicate that Jami's narrative was illustrated in his lifetime, a testament to the instant popularity of the story. In this set of book covers, scenes of Yusuf and his brothers decorate one face of each cover. In both images, Yusuf sits in state, surrounded by his brethren, immediately before or after he reveals his identity to them. On one cover he is shown in a princely or courtly guise, seated on a throne as he addresses his family members. In the pendant scene, Yusuf has the fiery halo and veil of a prophetic figure, alluding to his piety and obedience to God. On the opposite side of each book cover are more generic courtly scenes of figures feasting in a garden setting, which might represent the aristocratic patron who commissioned such a luxurious book.
Paint and lacquer on papier-mâché
14 13/16 x 9 11/16 in. (37.7 x 24.6 cm)
Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Provenance: Purchased from David Benzaria, New York, New York, January 10, 1942; Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection
Not currently on view

Art and Literature

Islamic writers in the Middle Ages and early modern period (ninth to nineteenth centuries) practiced a number of prose genres—history, biography, and travelogue among them—but poetry in the Persian language was considered the highest form of literary accomplishment. Persian was the language of high culture in the Islamic world, and many royal courts used Persian as their official language. Poetry was associated with venerable Arabian oral traditions as well as the poetic quality of the Qur'an, and mastery of this genre in Persian or Arabic required extensive knowledge of languages and texts. Poets were important members of royal courts, holding much higher positions than painters, for example. In the relationship between art and literature in the Islamic world, the word always took precedence over the image. Only in the modern period do visual artists achieve the same level of fame and fortune as their literary counterparts.

In Islamic manuscripts, images serve mainly to illustrate the texts provided, which does not mean that the images were not enjoyed as artistic creations themselves or that the work of painters was completely derivative. This situation simply indicates the working conditions painters faced in the Islamic world. As an adornment to the excellence of Persian poetry, Persian painting achieved great fame in the visual arts. And like poetry, Persian painting was exported across Islamic lands, with famous poets and painters collaborating to create luxurious, lavishly illustrated literary manuscripts.
Miniature: Line Drawing of Artist at Work, ca. 1600, Persian, 62.205

Related Objects in SAM's Collection

Book Cover: Joseph and his Brethren, 18th century, Persian, 42.12.2
Photo: Paul Macapia


Islamic art in general involves a distinction between secular and religious imagery. In the religious realm, artworks are generally aniconic; that is, they often do not include representations of humans or animals. In the secular realm, however, the distinction between the religious and profane is blurred, with religious subject matter often found in popular literary works. In fact, religious symbolism and interpretation permeates much of the literary output of the Islamic world, and nearly every subject has some element of religious symbolism. For example, Persian literature abounds with love stories in which star-crossed lovers seek each other across space and time. These love stories can also be understood as allegories in which the lovers are on a mystical journey toward union with God rather than with one another. This mystical meaning was quite common to medieval and early modern literature in the Islamic world, as many of the most famous writers and poets were adherents of a mystical practice and understanding of Islam known as Sufism.
Mohammad's Ascent to Heaven, 16th Century, Persian, 47.96
Photo: Paul Macapia


Karen Mathews, Assistant Professor of Art History, University of Miami, on Joseph and this book cover


Exhibition HistoryUtah, Provo, Brigham Young University, Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islam, February 24, 2012 - November, 2013
Published ReferencesAl Khemir, Sabiha, "Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture", Brigham Young University Museum of Art, 2012, pg 197, illus.

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