Such a view insists that Zurbarán must be either genuinely prayerful or commercially savvy, but not both. Yet we might wonder whether the artist and his contemporaries, whose Christian theology insisted that God became decisively involved in even the most mundane human affairs by becoming human Himself, would have recognized such a stark distinction between prayer and work. To the contrary, Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons, like its Genesis source material, reveals that both the oratory and the marketplace are charged with the sacramental grandeur of God.
Rereading Genesis in preparation for my visit to the exhibit, I was pleasantly surprised by the picaresque, almost novelistic quality of the narrative of Jacob and his sons. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decameron, these episodes portray a fallen human family in all of its gritty, convoluted reality. To start, Jacob disguises himself as his brother Esau in order to obtain a blessing from his father Isaac, while the twice-widowed Tamar (who later figures prominently in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus), dressed as a prostitute, tricks Jacob’s son Judah (who is also her father-in-law twice-over) into impregnating her, thus securing her place in the family. And even though patristic exegesis would later hold up Jacob’s twelve sons as moral exemplars prefiguring the twelve apostles, the Genesis narrative explicitly reminds us that these are the same brothers who, envious of Joseph’s colorful robes, conscientiously decide to sell him into slavery in Egypt instead of just killing him outright. But what separates these stories from ordinary accounts of human depravity is the insistent, abiding presence of a loving God — one who consistently meets human sin, evident in countless betrayals and broken relationships, with ongoing fidelity, patience, and mercy.
With astounding visual economy, Zurbarán manages to compress this entire history into a single image, which consists of nothing more than a stooped figure, quietly leaning on a staff in a spare landscape. This is the portrait of Jacob, the first in the series. With his eyes downcast in a gesture of ponderous recollection, Jacob’s body language silently communicates a deep wisdom. His long white beard, flowing scarf, and crimson tunic seem to pull his entire figure to the earth, reminding us of our human frailty and mortality, the result of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. Yet at the same time Jacob’s hands, gently cupped above the staff upon which he rests his weary frame, indicate that this same earth also offers stability and support. At the end of his life Jacob becomes a visual lesson in humility, the proper attitude of human reverence before God.
The portraits of the sons that follow offer varying responses to this fatherly example. As the images succeed each other, our eyes are immediately drawn to their painstakingly detailed clothing, through which Zurbarán communicates the essence of their personalities. Levi’s tasseled priestly robes, Judah’s fur-lined regal mantle, and Dan’s pointed turban indicate their high social status but also reveal their arrogance, while the plain brown farmers’ tunics worn by Issachar and Naphtali suggest their self-effacing lowliness. Curiously, Zurbarán depicts these last two with greater warmth than the others: unlike Levi and Dan, who turn their backs to us, or the crowned-and-sceptered Judah, who seems to disappear beneath the folds of his royal clothing, Issachar and Naphtali are portrayed in simple profile, with their gazes directed down toward the earth. In contrast to the cursory mention they receive in Genesis 49, here by their very starkness Zurbarán has made them two of the most attractive portraits in the series, inviting viewers to linger contemplatively. Issachar, sandaled and accompanied by a donkey, and Naphtali, barefoot with a shovel and strap slung over his naked shoulder, eschew the guarded, self-conscious pride of their brothers, unmistakably evoking the humility of Christ. The moral and spiritual lesson imparted by Zurbarán’s portraits now emerges into view.