Zurbarán's Jacob and His Twelve Sons

Surveying Francisco de Zurbarán's (1598-1664) oeuvre, one can observe many paintings of Catholic saints: Saint Dominic, Saint Bonaventura, Saint Thomas Aquinas (all painted in 1626), Saint Serapion (1628), Saint Margaret (1631), Saint Luke, Saint Isabel of Portugal (both painted ca. 1635), Saint Rufina (ca. 1635-40), Saint Francis (1632 and 1658-64), and most famously Saint Francis in Meditation (1631-40 and 1639), suffering unto death as suggested by the skull he clutches. In this context, Zurbarán's series of thirteen paintings depicting Jacob and His Twelve Sons (1640-45) seems out of character and anomalous-an unexpected revelation out of the blue-not just in the subject matter, but in the rendering of the figures. Is the fact that they are Jews rather than Christians the reason why they are rendered so differently? The Jews stand in daylight, at ease with themselves, appearing as monumental, full-bodied, warm-blooded, mobile figures. Many are in lavish, colorful costumes, indicating their prosperity, while the flourishing nature behind them confirms this and underscores their naturalness. Indeed, they are grounded in and a force of nature. They are living beings-hardy, healthy, dynamic-unlike the Christian saints, who are immobilized in eternal blackness as if in a coffin. The saints appear to be more dead than alive-de-natured sculptural effigies, not unlike the rigid sculptural effigies on ancient and medieval tombs, as some scholars have noted. 

With Jacob and his Twelve Sons, Zurbarán returns from the New Testament to the Old Testament, from the end to the beginning, from the Christian St. John the Divine, who beheld "the pale horse" on which Death sat followed by Hell (Revelation 6:8), to the Jewish Jacob, the progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel symbolized by his twelve sons. In doing so, Zurbarán seems to reject the Christian conviction that salvation is only possible through identification with Christ (not to mention sacrificing oneself to Christ as the martyred saints did) in favor of the Jewish conviction that one's character and ethics are what matter most in life, as Jacob's description of the character and ethics of his sons (Genesis 49:1-28) strongly suggests. Indeed, the luminous, lively realism with which Zurbarán's secular Jews are rendered is entirely unlike the gloomy, barren realism of his sacred Christians. Zurbarán's saints have the frozen prefabricated look of waxwork figures, memento mori prematurely immortalized, rather than living likenesses. The appearance of the saints seems to be ideologically predetermined or even formulaic, standing in sharp contrast with Zurbarán's emotionally complex Jewish figures, who are thought to have been painted from life, as their distinctive, expressive faces suggest. 

Fig. 1 Francisco de Zurbarán, <em>Napolti</em>, (ca. 1640–45)<br/>Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK. © The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust,<br/>Photo: Robert La Prelle

The Christians were painted under the influence of the Italian Caravaggio, as revealed in their much-noted tenebrism, while the Jews were painted under the influence of the Spanish Murillo-the newly trendy, innovative painter of the time. Murillo was born in 1617 (seven years after Caravaggio's death in 1610) and by the 1640s had developed the "softly luminous style" that became characteristic of his work. By that time, Caravaggio's tenebrous realism-his so-called "dark manner"-seemed shopworn, over-conventionalized, stereotypical, and stale, which is how Zurbarán's paintings of the saints appear. The "light manner"-dare one say the "enlightened," uplifting realism?-of Zurbarán's Jewish paintings reads as a rebellious rejection of Caravaggio's dark and oppressive realism, a turning away from eternal darkness toward everyday light. Given the annihilating darkness of Zurbarán's rendering of the meditating Saint Francis, his body completely covered with coarse cloth, the reality of the flesh mortified and denied, the rendering of the Jews is a refreshing turn for the emotional better. Saint Francis is meditating on the skull-on death, the ultimate evil-with the desperate hope that God will grant him eternal life (although the intensity of his prayer, his pleading with God, suggests that there is no certainty that his denial of the body will guarantee the salvation of his soul from eternal damnation). By contrast, the robust, full-bodied sons of Jacob are a testament to the inherent goodness of life, no matter how badly some of them behaved.  

Like the paintings of the saints, Zurbarán's paintings of the Jews are implicitly portraits, character studies. The conspicuous difference is that the bodies of the Jews can be sensed under their clothes, whereas the bodies of the saints are obscured by their garments, as if their bodies do not exist and they are all soul. The bodies in the Jewish portraits are all fully realized, imaginatively amplified by their robes, which convey the body's volume. The body is unmistakable-undeniable-in the portrait of (Naphtali, ca. 1640-45). The flesh of his right arm and shoulder and some of his chest is clearly visible; his partial nakedness makes it clear that the body is indispensable. This presence contradicts the saintly eagerness to eliminate the body, especially because the body can be tempted by other bodies, as made clear by the story of Saint Anthony's sexual temptations and phantasies regarding the exciting bodies of women--makes clear. The Jewish portraits make it clear that body and soul are inseparable. Moreover, the body is alive with sexual desire and aggressive energy, as in the story of Jacob's first son, Reuben, who slept with his father's mistress (perhaps his mother, for he "defiled his father's bed," as Genesis 49:4 tells us), and in the story of Jacob's second and third sons, Simeon and Levi, "instruments of cruelty" who "in their anger, which was fierce, slew a man," as Genesis 49:5-7 tells us. It is worth noting that Zebulun, Issachar, Asher, and Naphtali are portrayed with attributes of the work they are destined to do. Zebulun becomes a sailor, Issachar a farmer, Asher a baker, and Naphtali a laborer, which indicates that they have the strong bodies necessary to do demanding work. 

Fig. 2 Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Francis, Saint Francis in Meditation (1635-9) The National Gallery, London

All of Jacob's sons are given attributes signifying their place in the world: They are all worldly characters and very particular individuals-people rather than symbols of blind faith like Zurbarán's redundant saints signify. They are multi-dimensional human beings with no pretense of being higher beings like the one-dimensional saints. From the peasant Naphtali, a tiller of the soil, to the regal Joseph, an adviser to the Pharaoh, the upright sons of Jacob have the spirited dignity and emotional complexity that Zurbarán's Saint Francis lacks, not only because he is down on his knees desperately praying to God, but also because he has no other purpose in life. Indeed, Zurbarán's saints have no individual attributes-unless the universal, anonymous, impersonal skull can be considered an attribute, even if it is nobody's skull in particular-suggesting that their lives have no meaning apart from the meaning acquired through their self-denial. They gain their authority through the Church they represent, not because they were born blessed directly by God, as Jacob and his sons were. Alone in their cells and indifferent to the life outside, the saints' isolation suggests their psychotic introversion, and the lack of nature in their claustrophobic space conveys their unnaturalness. The isolation of the saints could easily be misread as transcendence. However, the tension between light and shadow, which are irreconcilably at odds in Zurbarán's Caravaggesque paintings, dramatizes the inner life of the saints, suggesting that they are profoundly conflicted and that their suffering is a kind of self-torture. 

In sharp contrast, the Murilloesque serenity of the light in Zurbarán's Jewish paintings conveys the self-confidence of the extroverted sons of Jacob, who calmly and ably hold their own in the world and remain triumphant regardless of their individual failings and social position. The twelve sons of Jacob may be considered predecessors of the twelve apostles of Christ. The apostles also came from various walks of life, followed various professions before they followed Christ, and became in effect his sons; since Jesus was the son of God, the apostles can thus be regarded as the heirs of Jacob's sons. The crucial difference is that the body and soul of Jacob's sons were inseparable, while for the apostles, the body was sidelined by the soul-hence its sacrifice, as Christ sacrificed his body. 

Zurbarán lived and worked in Seville, "the Andalusian seaport that monopolized trade with the New World." Seville's economy declined in the 1640s, ending its so-called Golden Age. With business in Spain taking a turn for the worse, Zurbarán received fewer and fewer commissions from Spanish churches and ecclesiastical palaces-his main source of income. (He all but mass-produced paintings of saints, apostles, and contemporary princes of the Church, many of them monumental, some with many figures, some with single figures, often in a series). He became an international businessman, producing work for the Latin American market, particularly Buenos Aires, Argentina and Lima, Peru-two of the biggest cities in the Spanish Empire. His father was a haberdasher, more broadly a merchant of beautiful cloth, and the beautiful robes many of Jacob's sons wore may have been advertisements for his father's business. After all, the people who bought Zurbarán's paintings could afford to buy his father's cloth; both were probably expensive and certainly luxury items. Business was apparently good: It is likely that the paintings comprising Zurbarán's Jacob and His Twelve Sons were sold to some Spanish grandee living in Latin America. 

The exhibition at The Frick Collection brings together all thirteen paintings. "The high quality of the work suggests that it was painted on commission, rather than for the open market," The Frick tells us,

"Yet no documents have emerged that shed light on the patron or the original destination of the thirteen canvases. Their whereabouts for nearly a century before appearing in London in the 1720s…remains a mystery…. There it was sold at auction in 1727-28 to James Mendez, a Portuguese Jewish merchant and collector. On his death, in 1756, twelve of the paintings were purchased by the Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor, while the thirteenth canvas, Benjamin, fell to another bidder. It subsequently passed into the Willoughby de Eresby family of Grimsthorpe Castle, still its home today."1    

Trevor, a powerful Prince Bishop of the Catholic Church, installed the twelve paintings and a copy of the thirteenth painting in the Long Dining Room of Auckland Castle, his ecclesiastical palace in Durham, England. The castle is in the process of being converted into a Faith Museum with a Spanish Gallery and Research Center, as well as a Mining Art Gallery to acknowledge the importance of mining in northeastern England where Durham is located. Trevor was "an ardent promoter of religious tolerance and an advocate for the rights of both Jewish and Catholics," even though England was Protestant. He purchased the series after the Jewish Naturalization Bill, which was passed by Parliament in 1753 to extend the rights of Jews, was repealed within a year "in the wake of virulent anti-Semitism." 

Trevor was instrumental in the passage of the bill. His purchase of the series suggests that he continued to support Jewish rights, in courageous defiance of the prevailing anti-Semitism. There were some 700 Jews in England at the time. 

Jacob and his twelve sons seem to have been a popular theme in Latin America, as "two additional sets loosely related to the Auckland paintings can be found today in Peru and Mexico," The Frick notes. Others have probably been lost. Perhaps the Old Testament figures acted as stepping stones to the New Testament figures, providing a means for converting the conquered "heathens" to Christianity, with the patriarchal Jacob emerging as a sort of priest in the making, with his power to bless like God suggests. Or perhaps these figures were meant to be "constructive" role models for the indigenous peoples who served Spain with their slave labor, particularly in the gold mines (why else did Spain and other European countries enjoy a "Golden Age"?), as many of Jacob's sons served God through their labor, making them prosperous. Yet again, perhaps the subject showed that the Spanish conquerors, however ruthless and exploitive, still had good intentions, for they were ready to give the natives all the bread, the staff of life, they needed, as suggested by the full-to-overflowing basket of bread Asher carries; if they obeyed their Spanish masters, they would also be allowed to weave and wear as colorful and finely made cloth as their Spanish masters wore, if not as finely made and beautiful as the cloth of the extravagant robes worn by most of Jacob's sons. 

Fig. 4 Francisco de Zurbarán, Asher, (ca. 1640–45) Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK. © The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust, Photo: Robert La Prelle

Although all of the above probably had something to do with the popularity of this theme among the religious art that Spain brought to its colonies in the New World, The Frick informs us of a deeper, more sinister reason: 

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish missionaries and chroniclers claimed that the indigenous population of South America was descended from the [Ten] Lost Tribes [of Israel], basing their argument on perceived similarities in appearance, religious customs, and language between the Jews and the native peoples. This alleged connection provided a means of explaining the existence of the inhabitants of the New World within the Biblical narrative of Adam and Eve and the origin of mankind. It served as well to justify the conversion of the native population to Catholicism by tracing their ancestry back to ancient Israel, ignoring their own history [and religion]. Images of the sons of Jacob, displayed in Latin American churches and monasteries, would have brought to life these supposed Biblical ancestors. Furthermore:

"Judah and Benjamin occupied the southern region of Israel around Jerusalem, with the other tribes in the north. In the eighth century BCE, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser invaded the northern kingdom and drove out its inhabitants. The fate of the ten northern tribes after the Assyrian invasion was a hotly contested issue during Zurbarán's time."2

With a convenient, perverse logic, it was decided that the ten defeated tribes of Israel moved south, far south and to another continent: to South America, which the Spaniards had just conquered. 

I suggest, however, that displaying images of Jacob's twelve sons to the lost South American tribes of Israel in Christian churches and monasteries had an unexpected, counterintuitive, emotional effect on their indigenous viewers: Instead of encouraging the conquered people to become adopted Christian sons of their Spanish conquerors, the images invited them to engage in covert resistance if not open rebellion against their lordly Spanish overseers. However unconsciously, images of the twelve sons-essentially dream figures, artistic inventions-implicitly reminded the conquered people that they were descended from as great, important, and spiritually profound a people as their Jewish ancestors. Perhaps they had only to model themselves on the Old Testament Jews, emulate them by endorsing their positive outlook on life, in order to escape their oppressive Christian conquerors. While their Jewish ancestors may have been the grandfathers of Christianity, the Jews never converted to Christianity-and so why should the indigenous peoples of South America? 

Fig. 5 Francisco de Zurbarán, Benjamin, (ca. 1640–45) Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK. © The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust, Photo: Robert La Prelle

I am arguing that the images of Jacob's heroic sons encouraged the natives' unconscious opposition to the conquering Christianity even as it invited their conscious submission to it. The images suggested to them that they were spiritually superior to the conquering Spanish Christians, who used their secular power to compel the indigenous populations to convert to Christianity. Indeed, the Spanish soldiers who physically conquered South America were as much "soldiers of Christ" as the Jesuits who spiritually conquered it. Unconsciously identifying with Jacob's sons as they self-consciously looked at their images, the indigenous populations found themselves emotionally at odds with and antagonistic toward Christianity, however much they were compelled to submit to it consciously, just as they were forced to submit to their Spanish conquerors. 

The lost northern tribes of Israel moved "to a more distant [southern] region, where no human being had ever lived," as 2 Esdras in the Apocalypse states. They did so to escape a fate worse than death: being forced to surrender their religion and with that become alienated from themselves. Taking on the identity of Jacob's noble sons by way of artistic fantasy, the indigenous peoples of South America felt spiritually superior to their Spanish conquerors, internalizing the pro-life Jewish religion while outwardly following the anti-life Christian religion. Just like Zurbarán's robust Jews, the indigenous peoples preferred a realistic natural life of hard work on earth to the magical, eternal, supernatural, work-free life in heaven of Zurbarán's troubled saints. Viewing Jacob's sons made life under their Spanish rulers more bearable for the lost South American tribes of Israel.   


"Zurbarán and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle" through April 22nd at the Frick Collection, New York City, 212-288-0700, frick.org.

Donald Kuspit is distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art History and Philosophy of Stony Brook University. His most recent book is Psychodrama: Modern Art as Group Therapy (London and Paris: Ziggurat Press, 2012).



1. Zurbarán's Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle, press release prepared by The Frick Collection for the exhibition (#321, December, 2017), 4.

2. Ibid., 2.

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