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)