What the hell kind of Jews are these? Am not sure I’ve ever seen anything like Francisco de Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle, which were on view at and soon to leave the Frick. Painted in between 1641 and 1658 by the second best painter in Spain at the time. There’s nothing Mediterranean, nothing smooth skinned and Italian about these big blokes, each painting measuring in at a massive, over-life sized eight feet tall. More like some kind of mountain Jews, hirsute and muscular they make Michelangelo’s Moses look like a weakling. I wonder where he took these models from. I have no idea who these are supposed to look like.
The digital images I grabbed online are misleading insofar as they make the figures and the painting look equal in power and quality. On view at the Frick, they were anything but. The first four sons (Reuben, Shimon, Levi, Judah) are particularly imposing in ways that their brothers are not. They represent, respectively, primogeniture, martial violence, priesthood, and kingship. The others pale in the authority of their painting. Their color is more pallid in color, less grandly attired, less dramatically figured. Even Joseph fails to impress. On view at the Frick, you approach the painting up close, their feet being there at eye level; they loom over you, so you better stand back.
Here’s what I grabbed from the website at the Frick:
The iconography of Zurbarán’s remarkable series is derived from the blessings of Jacob in Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis, a poem that has significance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. On his deathbed, Jacob called together his sons, who would become the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He bestowed on each a blessing, which foretold their destinies and those of their tribes. Jacob’s prophecies provide the basis for the manner in which the figures are represented in Zurbarán’s series. For his compositions, the artist drew inspiration from northern European prints.
The series was likely intended for export to the New World. In seventeenth-century Spain, it was commonly believed that indigenous peoples of the Americas were descended from the so-called “lost tribes of Israel.” The paintings, however, did not come to light until the 1720s in England when they appeared at auction and were purchased by a Jewish merchant. In 1756 they were acquired by Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham, a supporter of Jewish rights. Trevor hung them in the dining room at Auckland Castle, where they have remained for over 250 years. A two-year restoration of Auckland Castle presents this extraordinary study and exhibition opportunity.
Alluded to in only vague terms at the website is what went mentioned on the wall texts at the musuem. They tell us that Trevor supported the so-called Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753 allowing for naturalization of foreign-born Jews, primarily merchants. It was passed against Tory opposition and then revoked in 1754 in response to an outburst of anti-Semitism on the part of the public.
According to the reviewer at NYT, “In 1756, Bishop Trevor hung them in Auckland Castle’s dining room, where they had more than decorative impact. The bishop was a keen defender of English Jews, who were enfranchised by an act of Parliament in 1753, only to see the act repealed a year later amid anti-Semitic public protest. Diners at the bishop’s table would have sat under the reproving gazes of these Old Testament figures, Jewish forefathers of the church’s good fortune.”
But I’d have to say, if I had these Jews arrayed over my dinner, I’m not sure I’d have wanted them in my country either. These paintings are magnificent creatures, beyond good and evil.
This clip, which you can see here from the Meadows Museum, is superb