Erich Lessing

Joseph conquers temptation. This 13th-century mosaic, from the cupola of the Baptistry in Florence, shows three details from the story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, told in full in Genesis 39: Joseph has been sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, but his skills lead him to oversee Potiphar’s household; the woman of the house is attracted to Joseph but he evades her seductions until one day, when no one else is present, she grabs his garment and demands that he sleep with her (far left in photo). Joseph flees, but the woman has caught his garment in her hand. She denounces him to her husband for attacking her (center) and Joseph is sent to prison (far right), where his abilities to interpret dreams soon come to the attention of the pharaoh.

Romanos composed a sung sermon on this tale of unbesmirched virtue for recitation on the Monday before Easter. In it, both protagonists are accompanied by assistants: Potiphar’s wife is goaded on by devils, Joseph’s resolve is bolstered by angels of purity: “She whispered the delights of adultery; the heroic youth coiled to crush the shameless woman. Angels mustered to support Joseph; devils marched with Potiphar’s wife. In the heavens, the Lord observed the struggle and crowned his victor with odes of triumph, because”—and here the congregation joined in the refrain—“the eye that never sleeps sees everything.” In Romanos’ hands, the story of two people becomes a cosmic struggle watched by God. Not even the most unlearned listener could have failed to understand Romanos’ message in this sung sermon—to guard oneself from forbidden desire.