​Coming To America: Jacob And His Twelve Sons

Father Abraham may have had seven sons, but we all know that his grandson Jacob beat him by having twelve, who went on to found the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Beginning next year, a traveling exhibition featuring a highly important series of paintings of the patriarch and his dozen lads by one of the greatest painters of the Baroque era will be coming to the United States. Perhaps just as importantly as the art that makes up the show itself, this event is not simply a curiosity, but part of an effort to stem the tide of de-Christianization in Britain, making this one cultural event that you will want to put on your long-term planning calendar.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664) was one of the most important artists of Spain’s Golden Age. An exact contemporary of Velázquez, the greatest of all Spanish painters, Zurbarán became famous for his monumental canvases of religious figures. In these works the artist explored two very different ways of presenting his subjects, which seem almost diametrically opposed to one another.

On one hand, Zurbarán could evoke feelings of contemplation from the humblest, most austerely dressed monks and friars. Take a look, for example, at his painting of St. Francis of Assisi in Meditation (c. 1635), now in the National Gallery in London, where the founder of the Franciscans is shown wearing a worn, patched habit, his face obscured by his cowl. Another example, his Portrait of Fra. Francisco Zumel (1633) in the Royal Academy in Madrid, shows the Mercedarian friar and philosopher in a moment of thoughtfulness. His very white, but very plain robes are the only real brightness in an otherwise dark composition. 

On the other hand, Zurbarán also seemed to delight in portraying saints in the colorful costumes of his own time. Perhaps the best-known examples of this are his series of paintings of female saints, where the ladies are dressed to the nines. His painting of Saint Casilda of Toledo (c. 1630-35) for example, in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, shows the convert from Islam wearing an elaborate court dress made out of heavy damask, her hair braided with strands of pearls. Similarly, his elaborately dressed Saint Mathilda of Ringelheim (c. 1630-35) now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville, shows the very regally-attired mother of both the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I and of St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order.

Falling somewhere in between these two tendencies are a series of life-size paintings of Jacob and his Twelve Sons which Zurbarán painted sometime during the 1640’s-50’s. Unlike the images of saints examined above, where the background is often little more than a wash of color, these men are painted outdoors in the dry, Mediterranean landscapes with which the artist would have been familiar. Many of them bear the implements of those who live off the land by farming and hunting, such as a shovel, scythe, or even a hunting dog on a chain. Others carry objects that reflect some aspect of their story, such as Levi, who is shown carrying a thurible in recognition of the fact that the priestly class of Israel descended from his line.    

Just as in his representations of female saints, Jacob and his sons are all portrayed wearing elaborate, colorful dress. Unlike in his portraits of the ladies however, Zurbarán does not make an effort in this series to idealize these men. Some of them are young and handsome, but others are aged and careworn. The Patriarch Jacob, for example, is depicted wearing an elaborately woven silk turban, with leather gaiters fastened round his ankles. In contrast to his rich garb, he is so old that he is bent double, and has to support himself on his walking stick.

As a whole, this series represents some of the finest work that Zurbarán ever achieved as a painter. Very few people have ever seen these paintings however, since for the past nearly 300 years they have resided in the dining room of Auckland Castle, the former residence of the Bishops of Auckland. Thus, the upcoming visit of these canvases to America is something not to be missed.

Regular readers will recall that I touched upon these pictures when they were purchased almost two years ago by collector and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer. Mr. Ruffer has been hard at work creating a museum at Auckland Castle and in the surrounding town, dedicated to religious art and the history of Christianity in Britain.

In sending these works out on tour however, Ruffer is clearly calculating that creating awareness in America for what he is attempting to do in England will lead to a greater level of interest in his project. Mr. Ruffer is a very wealthy man indeed, but no successful museum is ultimately completely self-sustaining. His rationale for the project as a whole is encouraging, particularly in the face of a Europe which is becoming ever more radically secular, and more opposed to Christianity:

For me, the biggest thing of all is God, and I want Auckland Castle to be a place where God may be found ‘in the beauty of holiness’. I also understand that we live in an age when there is a widespread grumpiness at the very thought of the existence of God. The experience at Auckland Castle extends the idea of seeking things bigger than ourselves to other avenues of inspiration. Art, music, gardens, nature, food, silences, walks and the patina of heritage will all be found here. These things we call ‘the holiness of beauty’ sitting in harmony with the beauty of holiness – and in tension with it.

“Jacob and His Sons” will travel first to the Meadows Museum in Dallas in September of 2017, and then on to The Frick in January 2018. You can be assured that, when they arrive at The Frick, if I am still blogging, and you are still interested in my scribblings, I will be writing about them. Before that happens, however, I do want to make you aware of *why* these paintings are coming to this side of the Atlantic.         

Detail of “Joseph” by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1640-45)

The Crawleys, The Skywalkers, and Inherited Sin

On New Year’s Day I went to see Episode VII of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” again with a friend, having seen it for the first time on the evening of Christmas Day with my siblings – it deserved a repeat viewing. As has been observed by others, Episode VII has many similarities to Episode IV, or more formally, “Star Wars: A New Hope”. However as my friend pointed out, because so much of Star Wars is drawn from mythology, where gods, humans, and their offspring often repeat the mistakes of the past, even though they can choose to do right or wrong, it is hardly surprising that patterns repeat. That idea stuck with me through the weekend, and so I must tip my hat to his perceptiveness.

I had a similar thought in watching the season premiere of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday. Now in its final season, this sixth outing trotted out many of the same things we have seen before. Lady Mary is once again in danger for getting caught in a sexual dalliance; Lady Violet and Cousin Isobel are at each other’s throats; the downstairs staff make perpetually cute (Carson and Mrs. Hughes) or perpetually woeful (Bates and Anna) or perpetually irritating (Daisy). One could say that, like seven Star Wars films, there is not much more to say in six seasons of Downton Abbey. Yet in taking this attitude, one forgets that family inheritances in these tales are very important. For lightsabers and estates hold a greater symbolic importance here.

Given the irrepressible human need for novelty, it is understandable that some would criticize both of these popular franchises for being repetitive. Of course, even high art can be viewed as repetitive, as the over 100 examples of works of art depicting The Annunciation in the National Gallery here in Washington alone demonstrate. (One also wonders whether the structural similarities between many of Mozart’s Piano Concertos also thereby eliminate them from being worthy entertainments.)

To me however, the stories of the Crawleys and the Skywalkers are not repetitive, but examples of how the same situations can and do appear, time after time, thanks to human nature and Original Sin.

We are all familiar with the saying, “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son”, meaning that the descendants of the unjust will continue to feel the ill effects of the bad choices made by their parents, grandparents, etc. We can see this at work in Star Wars, and we also see it in Downton Abbey. The Skywalkers marked their ascendance by the shedding of blood, the Crawleys by the accumulation and protection of wealth. Each succeeding generation of these families is, at least to some extent, restricted by the choices made by those of the preceding generations. And in many instances, those choices were poor ones, the same temptations appealing to members of the same family, one generation after another. One need only read Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” for a real-life example.

If you have ever studied the Bible, you know that it is replete with examples of repeated offenses within families, and the effects such offenses have on the descendants of those who made them. In fact such repetition is so common to come across in the Books of Kings and Chronicles that it is almost as if the author was just dialing it in. One repeatedly reads of how a King of Israel started well, but “he did evil in the sight of The Lord,” such as in committing murder or worshiping idols. Eventually he is succeeded by a son or another relative, who usually ends up doing more or less the same thing.

Although the stories may seem repetitive, it is through their very repetitiveness that God makes his point. David, blessed and specifically chosen as he was by God, screwed up royally, as it were. So did his son Solomon, when he came to the throne, despite being blessed with the greatest of wisdom. By themselves they were incapable of avoiding sin. And yet God was able to make use of them anyway.

The history of mankind is one ongoing struggle, as a result of Original Sin. Our first parents chose to abandon their innocent state and enter into sin. As their descendants, we inherited not only the Free Will they had been given to make that decision, but also their attraction to sin in our own makeup, so that we keep facing the same choices and struggles that they did. To show us how power, greed, pride, and all the rest are offered to each generation in turn, and how each of us must choose, therefore, is not repetitive: it is a reality, one which all of us must learn for ourselves, often over and over.


I Don’t Know Sheep

Despite having grown up in a heavily agricultural part of Pennsylvania, I know very little about sheep. I do know that they smell strange, but taste delicious. I also know that the finer grades of their wool make excellent suits, and my second-favorite piece of outerwear is a WWII-style mouton leather jacket, made from a sheepskin. Apart from some other factoids picked up along the way, that’s about the extent of my experience with these animals.

The Mass readings this past Sunday included some rather sobering words about sheep, and more particularly their shepherds, from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah gives dire warnings of what will happen to those who lead their flocks astray. The metaphor of shepherd/sheep is one used throughout the Bible to describe not only the relationship between God and His people, but between those in positions of power, and those over whom they exercise that power. Which is why Jeremiah’s passage ought to make you feel a little bit uncomfortable with yourself.

In our contemporary context, most of us have little knowledge or experience of the sheep trade. I certainly know little about it, as explained above, and probably most of you don’t know much about it either. Yet when reading Jeremiah’s words we can substitute other terms to create recognizable, analogous relationships which resonate with us, today: candidate and constituency; broadcaster and listeners; author and readers; etc. Thus, “Woe to the politicians who mislead and scatter the voters, says the LORD,” would be a statement all of us who live in democracies could (hopefully) agree with.

I daresay many of us would find it easy to wave off Jeremiah’s warning as something inapposite to our own lives. We may very well comfort ourselves in thinking, “Well, I’m just one of the sheep, so no need to worry.” The problem is that all of us, to varying degrees, can find ourselves in positions of wielding the shepherd’s crook over others.

For example, if you’ve ever written a blog entry, a Facebook post, or a Tweet which has been liked or shared, then you are in a position of power. By publically reacting to what you wrote, others are acknowledging that you hold some level of influence. After all, there is no obligation on social media that you respond to everyone or indeed anyone who appears in your timeline. Thus by sharing your words with a wider audience, your words gain greater power over others, who may in turn wish to react to them.

Yet even those who don’t engage on social media may regularly find themselves shepherding others. Has a friend ever come to you for advice on what to purchase, or how to accomplish some task? Has a perfect stranger ever approached you on the street and asked for something – directions, a light, spare change? Then congratulations: Jeremiah’s warning applies to you, too. By submitting to your perceived power, whether over knowledge, resources, or the like, that seeker is allowing you to shepherd them.

So while Jeremiah’s words are indeed sobering for those in more obvious positions of leadership – senators, bishops, generals – they also ought to make us sober up as well. It is entirely possible that our actions, or inactions, may cause injury to someone else, if we do not take seriously those moments when we are called upon to exercise our power over others. Sometimes we are indeed the sheep, being led hither and yon by those with temporal or social power over us. But sometimes we ourselves are the shepherd, even if our flock consists of only a single sheep. Try not to lead the fellow astray.