Zurbarán Paintings

a symbol of tolerance

A remarkable statement of religious, political and social tolerance, these overtly Jewish paintings broadcast Bishop Richard Trevor’s concern for the plight of oppressed Jews living in England.

Tuesday 5 April 2016 - Saturday 31 October 2020
12:00 am

Jacob and his Twelve Sons is an impressive series of thirteen life-size figures by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), a master of the Spanish Golden Age of painting. The paintings have hung in Auckland Castle for 250 years, and remain an enduring symbol of tolerance, freedom and hope. Now held in perpetuity for the people of the North East, the purchase of the paintings in 2010 by Jonathan Ruffer was the beginning of a new era for Auckland Castle.

The story of the paintings’ journey to Auckland Castle is remarkable. Bishop Richard Trevor (1752-1771) bought twelve of the paintings, completed between 1640 and 1644, at an auction in 1756. He was outbid for the thirteenth but employed the prominent artist Arthur Pond to make an exact copy. He then set about transforming the Long Dining Room into an appropriately grand gallery to display his collection.

European art rarely depicts the subject of Jacob and his sons. As told in the Old Testament book of Genesis, Jacob fathered twelve sons, who went on to found the Twelve Tribes of Israel from whom the Jewish people are descended.

As he lay dying, Jacob foretold the destiny of each of his sons and their descendants (Genesis 49). It is this passage, known as the Blessings of Jacob, which provides the basis for Zurbarán’s paintings.

These paintings represent the foundation of the Jewish faith. Yet they were purchased by one of the most important figures in the Church of England, at a time when Jews and other non-Anglican religious groups in Britain were treated with indifference, if not contempt. The purchase and display of the paintings by Bishop Trevor was a meaningful and deliberate act. By surrounding his many influential dinner guests with these imposing and exotic works, the bishop made a public appeal for social, political and religious consideration, which still resonates today.

Jacob and his Twelve Sons were the focus of an in-depth technical and art historical study at the renowned Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. Following the study, supported by The Meadows Foundation and The Frick Collection, the paintings will be displayed at both The Meadows Museum in Dallas, Texas, and The Frick Collection in New York, before returning to Auckland Castle in 2018.  The video below shows the paintings being decanted from Auckland Castle ready for their American adventure.

In January 2016, the Open University also produced a film about Zurbarán at Bishop Auckland and this is now available to view online via the Open Arts Archive.