Jacob was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. These three patriarchs hold a central position in Judaism as the forefathers of the Jewish people. In Christianity, Jacob is seen as a prefiguration of Christ, and his sons as anticipations of the Twelve Apostles. Jacob’s sons were the offspring of four women: his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. With Leah, Jacob also had a daughter, Dinah.
“The Blessings of Jacob,” the prophetic poem from Chapter 49 of Genesis, was Zurbarán’s primary biblical source for Jacob and His Twelve Sons, painted in the 1640s. In these verses, Jacob gathers his sons around him just before his death to reveal their destinies. The theme of Jacob’s blessings was rare in western European art; Zurbarán took inspiration from sixteenth-century northern European prints for the poses of the figures and their exotic costumes. The highly individualized faces, however, were most likely painted from life.
Jacob’s sons are the founders of the Twelve Tribes, which spread out over the Israelite kingdom. In the eighth century BCE, the Assyrians invaded the northern territory and drove out the ten tribes that had settled there. The whereabouts of these so-called “lost tribes” has been debated over time. In seventeenth-century Spain, it was commonly believed that the indigenous people of the New World were the descendants of the ten lost tribes.
It has been suggested that Zurbarán’s series was intended for a monastery, church, or wealthy client in Latin America, where Jacob and his sons could be viewed as the remote ancestors of the native people. Two similar series are found today in Lima, Peru, and Puebla, Mexico, respectively. However, the original destination of the present set is not known, leaving Zurbarán’s purpose in creating these monumental paintings, as well as their early history, wrapped in mystery. The series is first recorded in England in the 1720s, when it was purchased at auction by a Jewish merchant, James Mendez. In 1756, all but one of the paintings passed into the hands of Bishop Richard Trevor of Auckland Castle, County Durham, an advocate for the rights of Jews in England. The paintings have remained in Auckland Castle ever since, traveling to the United States for the first time on the occasion of this exhibition.