oil canvas depicting man in ornate cape and holding out gold chain

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664)
Levi, ca. 1640–45
Oil on canvas
79 x 40 3/4 in. (200.7 x 103.5 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK, courtesy Auckland Castle Trust/Zurbarán Trust
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust; photo Robert LaPrelle

Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.

May I never come into their council;
may I not be joined to their company —
for in their anger they killed men,
and at their whim they hamstrung oxen.

Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob,
and scatter them in Israel.

“The Blessings of Jacob” (Genesis 49:5–7)

Levi and Simeon share a blessing — or curse — that refers to their excessive violence in response to the rape of their sister, Dinah. Jacob condemns both brothers; nonetheless, Levi’s descendants were chosen to serve as the nomadic priests of Israel. In Zurbarán’s painting, Levi holds the chains of an incense burner, a typical attribute of Jewish priests, its pyramidal shape echoing the form of the figure. Levi is shown in fanciful garb derived from a Mesopotamian figure in Philips Galle’s print The Story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, after Maarten van Heemskerck. This figure also inspires the pose of Levi, who is portrayed from behind. X-rays taken during a recent technical analysis reveal the head of a woman underneath Levi’s feet, indicating that the canvas was recycled and turned upside down for reuse. The temple featured in the landscape is an addition Zurbarán made late in the painting process, as evidenced by infrared reflectography.

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