The Unprecedented Bible Portraits of Francisco de Zurbarán

In his paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons, the 17th-century Spanish master humanizes his subjects, rendering them approachable and individual rather than remote and ethereal.

From Dan by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1640–45. Frick Collection/Auckland Castle Trust/Zurbarán Trust.

From Dan by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1640–45. Frick Collection/Auckland Castle Trust/Zurbarán Trust.

March 14 2018
About the author

Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.

With the sons of Jacob cowering before him, the fearsome viceroy of Egypt finally reveals himself as none other than their brother Joseph, whom they had long ago conspired against and sold into slavery. He thereby takes the final step toward fulfilling his youthful dream of seeing his family bow down to him—while simultaneously orchestrating a joyous family reunion. The story is told with incomparable artistry in chapters 42-44 of Genesis.

Now this fractious biblical family has been reunited again in an exhibit at New York’s Frick Collection, where a thirteen-canvas series of Jacob and each of his twelve sons, by the 17th-century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, is on display through April 22. Previously on view at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, the pictures hail from Auckland Castle in England, with the lone exception of the portrait of the youngest son Benjamin, whose home is at Grimsthorpe Castle.

The pictures, too, have a story behind them.


Seemingly self-taught, Zurbarán (1598-1664) spent most of his career in Seville and worked typically for monastic patrons. His paintings became widely dispersed in southern Spanish churches, from which many of them were subsequently looted and carted off by Napoleon’s army—a fate that facilitated the overshadowing of Zurbarán by his more famous Spanish Golden Age countrymen Diego Velázquez, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco), and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Zurbarán is best known for dramatically-lit paintings of fervid apostles, saints, and monks, often at prayer. In, for example, an apparent self-portrait now in Madrid’s Prado Museum, the painter associates himself with St. Luke, the patron saint of painters, as he “devoutly contemplates the almost-sculptural figure of Christ on the cross, which stands out against the dark background” (to quote the Prado’s website). Conceived in the grand mimetic tradition, Zurbarán’s religious repertoire was said to have tricked nuns into believing that his subjects were living, breathing human beings and to have caused dogs to bark.

Whether Zurbarán himself was as pious as his subject matter is a matter of debate. The exhibit’s curators, at any rate, subject his reputation to a bit of myth-busting. In their account, Zurbarán was an entrepreneur who operated a successful workshop with a personal “brand,” and his religious output offers no stronger evidence of a deeply held personal spirituality than does, mutatis mutandis, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or a Picasso crucifixion.

Zurbarán’s portraits of Jacob and his sons, which date between 1640 and 1645, aren’t the only such series from this period, but they are the only one residing in Europe; three others are in Latin America. And there’s a story here as well: Zurbarán’s workshop already created pictures for the New World, so this series, too, might originally have been intended for export there. Latin American buyers, as Akemi Luisa Herráez Vossbrink writes in the exhibition catalog, were attracted to the then-popular idea that the indigenous peoples of Latin America descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. (Menasseh ben Israel, the enigmatic Dutch rabbi and ally of Rembrandt, was a proponent of this lost-tribe narrative.)

It’s more likely, however, that the pictures didn’t leave Spain—at least not right away, and then not for the New World. From the 1640s until the 1720s, their whereabouts remain unknown, but in 1727-28 the series showed up in London where it was bought at auction by James Mendez, a Jewish merchant and collector. After Mendez’s death in 1756, the pictures, once again put up at auction, were bought by Richard Trevor, bishop of Durham and proprietor of Auckland Castle. That is, Trevor bought the twelve he could afford, having been outbid on the Benjamin portrait.


Taken collectively, the life-sized pictures demonstrate an ambitious and unprecedented program in biblical portraiture. Most strikingly, Zurbarán humanizes and individualizes his subjects, rendering them approachable rather than remote and ethereal like so many portraits of monks and saints—as well as earlier portraits of biblical figures. These are men with whom one could imagine sharing a drink, or a secret.

At the same time, he also borrows a convention long used by Christian artists in depicting saints and apostles: namely, identifying them by their ascribed attributes or accessories. Saint Peter, keeper of the gates of paradise, almost always carries his keys, while Saint Barbara, whose father locked her in a tower, is typically set against a background tower containing three windows symbolic of the trinity. Just so, Zurbarán draws on the biblical text—and particularly on Jacob’s own metaphor-rich address to his sons in the great deathbed scene of Genesis 49:1-27—to identify them by their pictorial attributes.

Thus, four of the brothers are depicted with animals: Judah (“a lion’s whelp”) with the king of beasts, Issachar (“a strong-boned ass”) with a donkey, Dan (“a serpent by the road”) with a serpent, and Benjamin (“a ravenous wolf”) with a wolf. Mysteriously, Naphtali (“a hind let loose”) is seen not with a deer but carrying a shovel, the same way he appears in a 16th-century set of engravings by Crispin van den Broeck that was published in Amsterdam in 1643, when Zurbarán was working on this series. (It’s been pointed out that the Revised English Bible, following the Greek Septuagint, assigns him instead the symbol of a tree, suggesting that the shovel may be a tool for planting.)

In other portraits, Zurbarán’s Asher (whose “bread shall be rich”) lugs a bread basket, while Zebulun (who “shall dwell by the seashore”) displays an anchor. Gad (a “raider”) wears a soldier’s uniform. Levi holds the chain of a censer, befitting his tribe’s future role in the Temple. Reuben (“my firstborn, my might”) rests his hand on a solid stone column. And Joseph (a “fruitful bough”) presents himself with the accoutrements of a senior administrator. As for the patriarch Jacob, the furry anklets on his legs may hint at the prop he used to swindle his brother Esau of his paternal blessing.

Most of the pictures not only capture appurtenances but to a greater or lesser degree also convey the substance of the actual blessings—or, in some cases, ill-disguised curses—that Jacob bestows upon each of his sons as he seeks to inform them of “what will transpire with you in the end of days” (49:1). To this family reunion, the heavily-bearded Jacob himself has arrived hunched over, tenuously balancing on his cane. The lone figure among the thirteen who doesn’t extend to the top of the picture plane, he is a man who, according to a midrash, will be punished with premature death for having complained to Pharaoh about the “few and evil” years allotted to him in contrast to his forebears Abraham and Isaac. As for the twelve sons/tribes, they offer an object lesson in diverging fortunes, from Judah’s crown, regal garb, and scepter to Naphtali’s status as a lowly farmer.

In these studies in personality, Zurbarán focuses his attention less on symbolic accessories than on the men themselves, including, with special zest, on the ways that clothes make the man. (A haberdasher’s son, he was a close student of clothing texture and color.) In the background are largely imaginative landscapes, save for, in Levi’s case, a domed structure suggesting, in a longstanding Christian aesthetic convention, the Temple in Jerusalem.


Aside from its significance as biblical explication, the series takes its place among earlier and near-contemporary depictions of figures from the Hebrew Bible. Some 300 miles north of Seville, for instance, the royal Pardo hunting lodge outside of Madrid contains series on Esther by Patricio Caxés and Joseph by Jerónimo de Cabrera, both of whom were active for decades before Zurbarán was born.

Nor were Jacob and his sons neglected. A 15th-century manuscript illumination portrays the sons generically, with little if anything that differentiates one from another, as they kneel around Jacob’s deathbed; the same lack of variety is evident in a 14th-century French manuscript. In the Lady Chapel at the medieval Wells Cathedral in England, each brother receives his own stained-glass window, but even their mothers would be hard-pressed to distinguish among their faces.

By contrast, a 16th-century series of etchings by the Dutch artist Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert treats the biblical characters in a manner that almost anticipates magic realism. In the Benjamin picture, for example, a wolf takes a bite out of a lamb’s head as Jacob’s heavily muscled youngest son sits, bare-chested and arms folded, in a scene littered with classical ruins; in the middle ground, a hybrid mythological creature with a female torso and three heads, wings, and the lower body of a snake, stands on a platform.

Zurbarán’s works, as we have seen, are wholly different; his Jacob and sons are painted straight, without fantastical props—an approach that underscores their humanity. But this is not to say that they are original in every respect. Zurbarán drew in particular on print sources, from which he then often created “collages” while making the imagery his own. As noted in the catalog by Rafael Barrientos Martinez and Claire Barry, he relied largely on two series: “The Twelve Sons of Jacob” by the Dutch artist Jacques de Gheyn II (1565-1629) and “The Twelve Apostles” by the German artist Martin Schongauer (ca. 1450-1491). Martinez and Barry also identify borrowings from the great German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

For an example of Zurbarán’s “collage” method, consider, for example, his painting of Dan, whose posture and attire are nearly exactly lifted from Philips Galle’s 1559 etching “Jonadab Counseling Amnon,” itself based on a work by Maarten van Heemskerck. Zurbarán has given Dan a shave, but the body, the drapery, the hand, and the face are near-perfect matches. For Dan’s staff, he turns to Jacques de Gheyn’s engraving of Dan while modifying the manner in which the snake wraps itself around the staff. (Incidentally, the de Gheyn engraving—itself after a work by Karel van Mander I—includes in the background a reference to the verse in Gen. 49:17 about Dan’s serpent biting a horse’s heels; Zurbarán edits out that element.)

In the Benjamin canvas, to take another example, Martinez and Barry have compellingly teased out a likely borrowing from Dürer’s “Christ Nailed to the Cross” (ca. 1509), in which a figure on the left, his back to the viewer, carries a canteen in his right hand. Zurbarán replaces the canteen with the chain that Benjamin uses to lead his wolf; he also greatly embellishes Benjamin’s garb, giving him a green-, blue-, and gold-striped shirt and no fewer than five golden bows (and hints of still more) neatly tied on his pants and shirt. But the posture is nearly the same as Dürer’s.

Of course, that Zurbarán drew upon prior artistic tradition in composing this series is a rather mundane fact. Every great artist from Shakespeare to Picasso has worked within and out of a set of traditions; none created ex nihilo. What makes their art transcendent is their genius for innovating even as they have been inspired by the past and by past masters. Zurbarán’s series, in its own way, exemplifies that genius.


Questions remain both about the series and about the journey it took. Although it’s clear that Zurbarán’s alleged piety has been overstated, what exactly the Catholic artist thought about his religious subject matter is unknown and perhaps unknowable. It may or may not be noteworthy, for example, that two decades earlier he had gone to great lengths to inscribe his crucifixion (1627, now at the Art Institute of Chicago) with mostly-correct Hebrew letters on the titulus above the cross. Here, however, he seems to have had no interest in attaching Hebrew names to the stones that in each picture identify the main figure; instead he resorts to Latin script.

One is also left wondering what Zurbarán might have made of his pictures being appropriated, more than a century after his death, to plead the cause of British Jewry—which, improbable as it sounds, is exactly what happened. Richard Trevor—one among a number of very wealthy Durham episcopal bishops who made their fortunes in coal and lead—pointedly intended the twelve pictures he’d bought at auction (along with a commissioned copy of the Benjamin canvas) to underscore his identification with that cause.

As a member of the House of Lords, Trevor, like all Church of England bishops, supported the 1753 “Jew Bill” allowing individual Jews to apply to Parliament for permission to be naturalized as Englishmen. The bill passed, but was repealed a year later; the Zurbarán canvases, however, remained on Trevor’s castle walls as witnesses. His guests would pass first through the Great Room containing a series on the apostles and then to the dining room with the Jacob series. “It was a way for him to bring all of this subject to his dining room, where he hosted the British aristocracy, and say, ‘Shame on you. Do better than what you’ve done,’” says Mark Roglán, director of the Meadows Museum in Dallas. “It was also to remind them, ‘You can’t understand Christianity without Judaism.’”

Indeed, taken as a whole, this series illustrates what can happen when an artist approaches the biblical narrative and biblical characters seriously, seeking to anchor them and their personalities in a setting and a set of references that attest to their permanent relevance. In that sense, the unlikeliness of the series’ journey isn’t entirely surprising, but instead may offer evidence of just how effectively Zurbarán laid bare the humanity of his subjects. It was the first time an artist had, on this scale, been so concerned with the sons of Jacob that he undertook to paint them in a manner in which their mothers could tell them apart.

To put the point differently, the significance of this series is tied up with the staying power of the biblical stories themselves. Countless commentators on the Hebrew Bible have noted how even the most exalted figures in it are depicted neither as saints nor as angels but as all-too-fallible human beings. There are good and bad parents, good and bad sibling relationships, praiseworthy and dishonorable actions. If his predecessors had almost universally avoided the darker moral areas in order to project images of unsullied piety, Zurbarán—who in this respect shares a sensibility with his towering Dutch contemporary Rembrandt—preserves and enlivens the tensions.

Might all this have any connection with the pictures’ uncanny ability to pass safely and intact through (as it happens) Jewish hands and find harbor with the philo-Semitic Bishop Trevor of Durham, England, there to help make the case for the enduring and inviolable merit of the children of Israel?

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