Reuben

oil painting depicting man holding column like structure

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664)
Reuben, ca. 1640–45
Oil on canvas
78 9/16 x 40 9/16 in. (199.5 x 103 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK, courtesy Auckland Castle Trust/Zurbarán Trust
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust; photo Robert LaPrelle

Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might and the first fruits of my vigor,
excelling in rank and excelling in power.

Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel
because you went up onto your father’s bed;
then you defiled it — you went up onto my couch!

“The Blessings of Jacob” (Genesis 49:3–4)

Reuben is Jacob’s eldest son and his first child with Leah. The blessing refers to this firstborn status but also condemns Reuben for betraying his father in an earlier incident, when, as related in Genesis 35, Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. Zurbarán’s depiction of Reuben reflects these conflicting circumstances. The column, a traditional symbol of fortitude, on which Reuben rests his hand, as well as his frontal stance, suggests his strength and rank in the family. His downcast eyes, however, allude to his reprehensible actions, which would deprive him and his tribe of the preeminent position they would have attained. The primary visual source for Reuben has been identified as the standing figure of Pontius Pilate dressed in a turban and robe from Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut The Flagellation from the Small Passion series, a source perhaps for the column as well.