The Old Testament story of Joseph was a popular subject in art. Lucas van Leyden depicted it on several occasions, mostly in engravings, but also in this small panel. After his brothers sold him into slavery, Joseph was taken to Egypt, where he became the servant of the courtier Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife was infatuated with him and repeatedly tried to seduce him. On one of those occasions, although Joseph fled, his admirer managed to keep one of his garments. Angered by Joseph’s rebuff, she told her husband that his servant had raped her, and produced his cloak in evidence. This is the scene illustrated in Lucas van Leyden’s painting: Potiphar’s wife makes the false allegation.
The tale of Potiphar’s wife was one of several biblical and mythological stories about women conniving to bring about a man’s downfall, which gained popularity in the sixteenth century. People were warned about women’s cunning, especially in love. The decorative sculptures convey that idea. One of the reliefs shows Eve, the archetypal seductress, who persuaded Adam to eat the forbidden apple and so brought sin into the world.