oil painting of man with ornate robes and staff with snake on it

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664)
Dan, ca. 1640–45
Oil on canvas
79 1/8 x 40 3/4 in. (201 x 103.5 cm)
Auckland Castle, County Durham, UK, courtesy Auckland Castle Trust/Zurbarán Trust
© The Auckland Project/Zurbarán Trust; photo Robert LaPrelle

Dan shall judge his people
as one of the tribes of Israel.

Dan shall be a snake by the roadside,
a viper along the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
so that its rider falls backward.

I wait for your salvation, O Lord.

“The Blessings of Jacob” (Genesis 49:16–18)

Dan’s name, which is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “to judge or vindicate,” is directly connected with the role Jacob assigns him in his blessing. The first son of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid, and Jacob, Dan is depicted in an ornate golden robe that indicates his stature. With one hand, he appears to gesture to someone outside the frame, while with the other, he holds a snake-entwined rod resembling the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol associated with medicine and healing. Here, the attribute has been interpreted as recalling Jacob’s description of Dan as a judge of his people and a “viper along the path, that bites the horse’s heels,” thus defeating his more powerful enemies. It has also been seen as a reference to the Old Testament passage in which Moses fashions a bronze serpent to protect the Israelites from a plague of poisonous snakes. The pose and gesture of Dan are lifted almost directly from a figure in Jonadab Counseling Amnon, a print by Philips Galle after Maarten van Heemskerck.

The elaborate pattern of Dan’s brocade robe is the same as that of Judah’s, although different in color. Such opulent fabrics have been identified as having been used for furnishings but not for clothing. The son of a haberdasher, Zurbarán was familiar with a variety of textiles at an early age, and his meticulously rendered fabrics, painted from life, play a significant role in his presentation of the sumptuously attired tribes of Israel, both denoting status and adding visual interest and decorative appeal.