When in 2010 a group of Old Testament paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán were offered for private sale it came as something of a surprise. The owner couldn’t be blamed for failing to anticipate the resulting public outcry: the pictures of Jacob and 11 of his 12 sons had hung at Auckland Castle in County Durham for more than 250 years, and, though viewable by appointment, had attracted little attention. In 2012, the castle and its paintings were bought for £15 million by Jonathan Ruffer, a banker; he has since spent nearly ten times that much on restoration and redevelopment in the neighbouring town of Bishop Auckland. Over the past three years, while the building works were ongoing, the paintings have been on tour to New York, Dallas and Jerusalem. Earlier this year they returned to Auckland Castle, where they were put back on display along with a faithful copy of the 13th painting in the series – the portrait of Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, which hangs at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire – until the Covid-19 pandemic made them again unavailable to the public.
The paintings tell the story, related in Genesis 49, of Jacob’s prophecies for Benjamin and his brothers, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali and Joseph. Zurbarán portrayed them in an array of fantastical costumes including animal skins, striped dungarees, turbans and brocades. Each son is identified at the bottom corner of a painting by a wooden block bearing his name, and by the inclusion of objects connected with his story. Joseph, who carries the rod and papers of an Egyptian vizier, is particularly striking in a gold-fringed coat of many colours and a splendid pink and blue turban, scarf, stole and boothose (Zurbarán’s father was a haberdasher). The paintings dominate the castle’s long dining room: each canvas is six and a half feet high, and the figures, full length and more or less life-size, tower over the viewer.
They have hung there since 1756, when the bishop of Durham acquired them from the estate of James Mendez, a Jewish merchant of Portuguese descent. Mendez bought them from William Chapman in 1720, just after the collapse of the South Sea Company, in which Chapman was a shareholder. How and when the paintings arrived in Britain isn’t known, but by the time Mendez got hold of them they had already been identified as Zurbarán’s work. In France, by contrast, his Saint Francis hung unidentified in a Lyon convent and was recognised only after the Peninsular War, when Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soults arrived home with 18 looted Zurbaráns and the artist’s reputation soared.
Zurbarán was born in the remote region of Extremadura and moved to Seville in 1626, where he produced 21 paintings in eight months for the monastery of San Pablo el Real. He was largely self-taught but quickly absorbed the naturalism and light effects of Velázquez, who had established his reputation in Seville a few years earlier, as well as the drama of Juan Martínez Montañés’s candlelit polychrome sculptures. Zurbarán added a distinctive iconography, favouring richly coloured garments and an almost hallucinatory absence of perspective. He soon became the painter of choice for the city’s many churches and convents. In 1628 he was commissioned to produce 22 paintings for the Mercedarians, including two of his most famous works, the Apparition of St Peter to St Peter Nolasco (now at the Prado) and the Martyrdom of St Serapion (now at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut).
As Jonathan Brown puts it in the catalogue that accompanied the touring exhibition, Zurbarán was ‘an opportunist, a canny businessman, an efficient manager of a productive workshop’. By the 1640s, he and at least five assistants were producing several series of paintings – of virgin martyrs, important religious figures and great men – with many intended for export to the burgeoning market in the New World. The Auckland set constitutes one of the few series that can be seen in its entirety, if you add the picture of Benjamin that joined it for the three-year tour. No mention of the paintings has been found in Spanish inventories, so it is generally assumed that they too were destined for the Americas, though the theme was also popular in Seville, where religious processions sometimes featured members of the congregation dressed as Jacob and his sons in fine garments, festooned with feathers and jewels and wearing elaborate headdresses. At the celebrations for the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1617, for example, there were representations of ‘barbarians, Turks, Castilian gentlemen from the past, the 12 Peers of France and the Tribes of Israel’. Zurbarán is also known to have given a set of Jacob and His 12 Sons to the local convent of San Jerónimo de Buenavista in 1659 in order to settle a debt.
Central to Zurbarán’s method was his use of models and motifs from prints by Northern Europeans such as Albrecht Dürer, Jan Sadeler I and Jacques de Gheyn III. Jacob and his sons appear in a surprisingly large number of prints produced in Antwerp, one of the centres of early modern religious book production. In the 16th century alone there were 25 illustrated editions of The Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs, an apocryphal text about Jacob’s prophecies, and many of the prints in it were reprised in other volumes: the Thesaurus veteris et novi testamenti of 1585, the Theatrum Biblicum of 1643. In the Auckland series, Zurbarán combined compositions and costumes from several such works, lowering the horizon to turn his figures into giants in their northern landscapes, and using elements from Dürer, Martin Schongauer and Philips Galle. Naphtali’s bare arm, for instance – one of the only anatomical elements in the series – is copied from Dürer’s Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene (c.1510).
It’s easy to forget the significance accorded to the Old Testament in previous centuries, with many prophecies and accounts believed to prefigure the coming of Christ. In Spain, columns depicting prophets and kings feature in virtually every major altarpiece produced in the 15th and 16th centuries. Jacob’s prophecies were among those thought to have messianic implications, particularly Genesis 49:10: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah … until Shiloh come.’ His sons were seen as ‘types’ of the 12 apostles, and the number 12 and its multiples, it was said, appeared often in the Book of Revelation. The Old Testament would have had special relevance in Seville, which had a large population of ‘New Christians’ – Jewish converts – whose theologians argued that the New Testament did not replace or supersede the Old Testament but fulfilled it. They were strongly represented in the merchant community, which sponsored the procession featuring the Tribes of Israel in 1617; earlier New Christian Sevillian merchants had paid for the construction of the monastery of San Jerónimo de Buenavista.
Many converts were active in the transatlantic trade and some emigrated: another set of Jacob and His 12 Sons by the Zurbarán workshop survives in the city of Puebla in Mexico. The story’s popularity in the New World arose from the belief that its natives were descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel – the tribes captured, according to 2 Kings, by the Assyrians and exiled to a distant land. The theory that they had reached the Americas was promoted after 1537, when Pope Paul III decreed that the native peoples of the new continent be brought into the Christian fold: connecting them to the lost tribes assured them a place in salvation history. Missionaries such as Diego Durán drew parallels between Judaism and the Aztec religion, and the belief that the tribes had been found was taken up by millenarians.
After 1644 the story spread in Europe: Menasseh ben Israel, owner of the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam, had heard it from a Portuguese Sephardic Jew recently returned from the Americas. It suited Christian millenarianism but it also fitted the Jewish belief that the messiah would come once the diaspora had spread to every corner of the world. In 1655 Menasseh travelled to London to petition Cromwell to allow Jews, expelled from the country in the 13th century, to resettle in Britain. His efforts were partly successful, but it would be another century before the Jewish Naturalisation Act granted full citizenship without conversion.
One of the supporters of the bill was Richard Trevor, the bishop of Durham, who agreed with Augustine’s teaching that the Jews should be allowed to live scattered throughout Christian society as witnesses to the Gospel. The bill was passed and then repealed a few months later, following a heated debate about the corruption of British society by Jewish financiers. Not long after, Trevor bought the Zurbaráns and hung them in his dining room alongside a painting of Augustine, perhaps as a silent rebuke to his guests.