Chapter 6: Egypt Saved by Joseph
Diana led Oliver around the imposing circular walls of the medieval Louvre, still preserved here in the basement level of the museum, and up a set of stairs in to the ground floor of the museum. Glancing out through the old glass panes, Oliver saw the distorted image of a group of tourists wandering through the enclosed space of the central courtyard. They continued up the worn marble stairs for two flights until Diana stopped their ascent at the first floor and gestured for Oliver to take in the collection of Greek bronzes marching into the distance of the hall before them.
“It’s through here. You know, most people come to the Louvre and head straight for the Mona Lisa, maybe run past the Greek and Egyptian collections, then just head out to visit the Eiffel Tower. They don’t take the time to really explore this place and appreciate its beauty.”
Oliver nodded in agreement, then shrugged and replied, “True, but you’ve got to admit that this place is huge. It probably intimidates your average tourist.”
“Oh, I get that, believe me. When I arrived I spent almost three weeks of evenings and most of my weekends exploring. Even after a year and a half I haven’t done everything justice. Eventually I had to just surrender myself to the enormity of this place and say, ‘Diana, you’re in Paris. Get out and see the rest of the city now and then.’”
She gestured up at the ceiling of the round room in which they stood. “Part of the what makes this place so overwhelming,” Diana continued, “is that the Louvre itself is a work of art. Look here.”
Overhead, the naked form of a muscular Icarus plunged to his death amidst a cloud of singed feathers. Daedalus reached towards him piteously, helpless to save his prideful son from plummeting into the sea. The painting was as richly detailed and vibrantly colored as any that Oliver had ever seen, but it was not a framed canvas hanging on the wall. This work of art appeared to be painted directly onto the ceiling of the room in which they stood.
“That’s The Fall of Icarus, painted in 1819 by Merry-Joseph Blondel,” Diana explained. “A lovely bit of Greco-Roman mythology, as imagined by a Frenchman more than two thousand years after the story was told.”
“I know the myth,” Oliver acknowledged.
“My point isn’t to refresh your understanding of childhood stories, but to point out the beauty this building. Many museums hold classic art. Some museums, the Pyramids of Giza or the childhood homes of Civil War generals come to mind, are actually the object on display themselves, even if they aren’t all they pretty to look at. But this building melds the two so completely that the structure itself is a work of art.”
Oliver placed a hand on Diana’s shoulder and nodded, understanding her passion.
“But this isn’t what I need to show you.”
Diana grabbed Oliver’s hand again and pulled him out of the round room and through a several long galleries filled with Egyptian artifacts. They stopped in a room lined with ornately carved and painted wooden sarcophagi and Diana gestured for Oliver to look up at the ceiling.
Above them was a scene out of a horror movie. At the far right stood a man in red robes and a striped headdress gazing sternly into the distance as he supported a dazed woman, bare breasts pressed against him, with one arm. With his other arm he held a golden staff, with which he was fending off a hoard of gaunt fiends and fire-breathing hellhounds. The monsters crowded forward, clutching at the heels of the helpless woman and gazing malevolently at the man in red as clouds of foul smoke billowed up at their backs, but they were repelled from her as if by an invisible wall.
“That’s Egypt Saved by Joseph,” Diana explained. “Painted by Abel de Pujol in 1827.”
“Looks pretty terrifying,” Oliver commented, walking around the room with his neck craned upward to inspect the work from different angles.
“Of course. If you believe the official story about the painting, Pujol was hired to paint this room with a biblical scene to accent the Egyptian artifacts that King Charles X intended to display in here. The plan was to focus on the story of Joseph saving the Pharaoh and his people from starvation, rather than the more popular Exodus account, since the king felt that a painting of Moses would not have been entirely appropriate to a room dedicated to honoring the might of Egypt.”
“That makes sense, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also uncomfortable with the idea of a painting of slaves overthrowing their ruler with the support of a wrathful god.”
“True. But getting back to the facts, think about the story of Joseph. How did he save Egypt?”
Oliver paused for a moment to ensure he had the facts in order. He was certainly familiar with the story, but for the last few months he had been immersed in Icelandic folklore and he wanted to be sure he didn’t mix up the details.
“As I recall, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers because they were jealous of his father’s favor. The slavers brought him to Egypt, where he quickly rose to a trusted position in his master’s house, only to be thrown into prison when he pissed off his master’s wife by rejecting her advances.”
Oliver looked at Diana to ensure he was keeping the story straight. Diana nodded and waited for him to continue.
“In prison he correctly foretold the fates of two other prisoners. One was executed, just as he predicted, while the other was restored to his position in the Pharaoh’s court. A while later the Pharaoh started having bad dreams and the freed prisoner suggested that he call on Joseph to tell him what they meant. Joseph interpreted the dreams correctly, saving Egypt and winning himself a place as the Pharaoh’s chief aid.”
“Decent summary, but there are two important things you left out.”
Oliver gazed up at the painted ceiling and pondered the scene for a moment. Diana was right, something was missing from his story, and from the painting above their heads. “I don’t remember there being anything about demons or hellhounds in the biblical account, Apocrypha, or what little I’ve read of contemporary Egyptian accounts.”
“The Egyptian evidence is sketchy at best for the entire period, but nothing that can be linked to the likely biblical Pharaohs mentions such creatures. The only place you’re likely to find them is in folk tales of the period.”
“As I recall, Joseph is said to have saved Egypt from a famine by predicting a time of plenty that would precede the famine, during which he proposed that the Pharaoh should stockpile grain to be distributed when the famine struck.”
Diana nodded and gestured at the ceiling. “You’re exactly right. Those monsters are completely out of place. The title and artistic style of the painting indicates that it is supposed to depict Joseph literally defending Egypt from the threats that Pharaoh dreamed about, but if that were the case he should be pushing back a few withered husks of grain and a herd of starving cows. You could almost argue that the human figures are gaunt enough to represent the famine, but that then theory is ruined by the hellhound over there on the left edge of the mural.”
Oliver strode over to a wooden bench set under one of the room’s wide windows and sat, crossing his legs and leaning back to further examine the painting.
“So what’s your theory on this?” he asked.
“Pujol was an artist who spent much of his life working here in Paris. When I saw this painting a little over a year ago the differences between the title and the content were just too deep to be ignored, so I started digging for more information about his life and the story of this work. It turns out that Abel de Pujol had a younger brother named Gabriel. Gabriel didn’t become an artist. Being the younger brother, and unable to depend on an inheritance, he needed to find a career that would provide a steady income, so he borrowed money from his brother to purchase a commission into the French army.”
Diana gestured up at the painting and continued, “Reading what I could find of Abel’s letters and journals, I discovered references to creatures like what you see up there. Those all trace back to stories that Gabriel told Abel after returning from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign.”
“What does that have to do with hellhounds and... whatever you call those hungry fiends up there?” Oliver inquired.
“Napoleon spent about four years in Egypt. That time was marked equally by fantastic discoveries and bloody battles against both the British and native Egyptian forces. We all know about the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, but there were countless other artifacts recovered during that time. Napoleon is also rumored to have sent several ill-fated expeditions up the Nile and out into the desert seeking relics of the Pharaohs. According to one letter that I found, Gabriel de Pujol was the sole survivor of one of those expeditions. The letter is very circumspect, but it had to be, given the amount of censorship that military mail was subject to, but in it he announced his return to France and alludes to seeing his comrades ‘taken by fiends of the desert’ and quotes heavily from the book of Exodus.”
“Couldn’t that just be a battle-worn Frenchman getting colorful in his descriptions of native rebels? European soldiers weren’t exactly known for their fair portrayals of people they viewed a savages.”
“True, but there’s one thing I haven’t told you yet.”
“And that is?”
Diana gestured up at the painted ceiling. “What do you see in Joseph’s hand?
Oliver examined the mural for a moment, then replied, “It looks like some sort of staff.”
“And your point is?”
“Even if we accept that Pujol has set this mural at least seven years into Joseph’s rule, when he might have actually held a staff of office and dressed in the fashions of the Egyptian nobility, that staff is all wrong. Egyptian rulers are usually depicted holding straight metal rods topped with the head of a jackal. Joseph’s staff in this painting is clearly wood and the head is shaped more like a shepherd’s crook. ”
Oliver had a feeling that he knew where Diana was going with this. “Are you suggesting that Abel de Pujol intentionally altered the depiction of Joseph in this painting to match his vision of what Gabriel described to him?”
“It fits the timeline. Gabriel was sent back to Paris to serve in a non-combat position soon after surviving that ill-fated mission. There are no more letters between the brothers, but in subsequent years Abel’s journal contains frequent notes of meetings between the brothers, alongside sketches that appear to be rough drafts for parts of this painting.”
Diana paused and gazed up at the painting for a moment, then turned to Oliver and crossed her arms. She stared until he lowered his head and looked her in the eye.
“Oliver, normally I’d be a bit annoyed at you for suggesting that I drop everything and follow you to Egypt without notice, but this is exactly the chance I have been waiting for. If your employer’s scroll turns out to be genuine, then this might be an opportunity to follow Gabriel’s trail and learn exactly what he found out there in the desert.”
“So you’ll come along?”