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Rare Spanish Biblical Paintings Go On Display in Israel

By Maya Margit | The Media Line

July 8, 2018

A view of the 'Jacob and His Twelve Sons' exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. (Credit: Elie Posner)
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For the first time, Francisco de Zurbarán’s ‘Jacob and His Twelve Sons’ is exhibited at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum

Though it is about biblical figures, “Jacob and His Twelve Sons”—painted by Spanish Golden Age Master Francisco de Zurbarán in Seville between 1640 and 1645—has never been to the Holy Land before. Nearly four centuries after he created the iconic series of 13 life-sized paintings, 12 of them are on display in Israel for the first time at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Zurbarán was famous for his Baroque-style religious work which features saints, nuns, martyrs, and other biblical figures. At the time, the Church wanted the series “Jacob and His Twelve Sons” to be displayed in South America. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish missionaries believed South America’s indigenous peoples were descendants of the 12 biblical Tribes of Israel. The series, however, never left Europe; instead, it re-surfaced mysteriously in England in the 1720s.

“There was this feeling at the time that the lost tribes of Israel were there,” Shlomit Steinberg, curator of the exhibition at the Israel Museum, told The Media Line. “The Christian Church’s idea regarding indigenous peoples was ‘let’s bring those children, those lost lambs, back into the fold.’”

Inspired by a chapter in the Book of Genesis, Zurbarán’s paintings show the Israelite Patriarch Jacob bestowing blessings on his 12 sons, prophesying each of their tribes’ destinies. Judah—who would establish the royal dynasty and was the ancestor of the kings David and Solomon—is portrayed in magnificently ornate clothing, holding a scepter and wearing a crown. Zurbarán meticulously portrayed the patriarchs Levi, Joseph, Dan or Asher carrying symbols of their unique status and fate.

Until this year, the artist’s famous series had never been on display outside of Auckland Castle in England, which is currently undergoing extensive renovations.

“I think this exhibition both symbolizes the recognition of the importance of Spanish culture to the Israel Museum, and the connection between Spain and the Jewish people,” Ido Bruno, the Director of the Israel Museum, said to The Media Line.

The exhibition in Israel was organized in a matter of months and was made possible by important donors, including the Fundación Hispanojudía (Hispanic-Jewish Foundation) in Spain.

“Our goal is to bring together the Spanish-speaking world and the Jewish world,” David Hatchwell, the president of Fundación Hispanojudía, told The Media Line, noting the foundation intends to collaborate with the Israel Museum on other projects. “We also currently have a very important project, in which we will build a world-class Jewish museum in Madrid.”

At the beginning of the year, Zurbarán’s paintings were exhibited at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, Texas, followed by the prestigious Frick Collection museum in New York. The exhibition at the Israel Museum will remain open until October, after which the works will return back to the newly-renovated Auckland Castle in England.

Whether they will travel again is anyone’s guess, but Bruno said the show marks a rare opportunity to discover the Spanish master’s iconic series outside of England.

“I think Auckland Castle will be reluctant to separate from these paintings again in the near future,” Bruno concluded.

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