The 17th century, so-called Golden Age of Spanish Art, dominated by the revered trinity of Velazquez, Zurbaran and Murillo, has taken me previously to many well-known art destinations, particularly in Spain, but also in other European countries and the U.K. , with notable works in their collections. This was, however, my first visit to Bishop Auckland, which has recently become somewhat of a Mecca for Spanish Art. The newly opened Spanish Gallery has been in the headlines, but the main reason for my visit was to see the monumental, full length portraits of the Patriarchs by Zurbaran, first purchased by Bishop Trevor in auction in 1756 and brought to display in the Long Dining Room, altered to show them to best advantage.
I have long been fascinated by the works of Zurbaran. However, my previous first-hand knowledge was confined to simple, austere images of silent, meditative monks depicted in sombre hues, dramatically lit by Zurbaran’s masterly use of chiaroscuro. I also loved his simple still life compositions, exquisite in their meticulous attention to detail. At Auckland castle I was intrigued to see a different side to Zurbaran, expressed in an exuberant, vibrant use of colour and fascination with depicting a range of different textiles in the magnificent clothes that the Patriarchs wear. How did such a magnificent set of portraits on such a particular theme end up in Bishop Auckland?
Mystery shrouds the early history of these works, thought to be produced in the 1640’s. Zurbaran was by then well established in running his workshop in Seville and usually worked to commission. Why did he chose this particular theme relating to the different founders of the twelve tribes of Israel? There is no definitive answer to this question but speculation suggests it might have been created for export of the New World. There was a prevalent belief in 16th and 17th century Spain that the populations of the New World were descendants of these tribes. What is noteworthy is that Zurbaran produced these works, which are a powerful symbol of Judaism at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
Bishop Trevor sounds a remarkable individual. Although he was not an art collector, he brought the first major series of Spanish paintings to the U.K. He was a man ahead of his time in his espousal of religious tolerance and strongly supported this embodiment in the Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753. This passed through parliament, only to be repealed two years later. It is suggested that he brought the works and altered his Long Dining Room specifically to display them as a strong statement, an artistic riposte to this political development. The bishop entertained the rich and powerful , presumably including those supporting the repeal. The paintings represented a powerful visual display of the bishop’s religious tolerance and provided a stimulus to the reopening of the debate into religious tolerance. This visual plea for religious, ethical and social tolerance is an interesting example of the intersection of politics, religion and art.
As a coherent set in a site specific location they are impressive in their scale and execution. Twelve of the works are originals, only Benjamin is a copy ( the bishop was outbid in the purchase of just that one). It has, however, recently been purchased and is displayed in the nearby Spanish Gallery. It is assumed that the works are workshop products, although overall there is clear evidence of Zurbaran’s hand and skill. Nevertheless, there are small aspects of less skilful execution.
As a starting point, Zurbaran has taken prints from Flemish artists for poses and gestures, but the faces are taken from life and are individualised. Each figure is distinguished by their attributes, as set out in the legends. All dominate their specific painting, the background kept minimal, the horizon low and are lit from the left with a strong use of chiaroscuro. They display the most colourful array of fabulous costumes, the detail of the fabrics beautifully rendered. Of possible relevance to Zurbaran’s fascination with this aspect of the depiction is the biographical fact that his father worked in the textile trade.
I have selected three images from the set for more detailed examination and to exemplify my more general observations. My criteria for selection were purely based on my immediate favourites, for a variety of random reasons.
The first I have selected is that of Jacob as I find it one of the most expressive of the series. Zurbaran manages to convey the fragility and vulnerability of the old man with a solidity and gravitas that suggest real presence. His face is sad and reflective and he leans for support on his staff. His furry ankle cuffs perhaps allude to his theft of the birthright from his hairy brother, Esau, by disguising himself in animal skins. His robes are a vibrant burgundy and the depiction of the drapery is masterly. The detail on his turban and scarf is intricately executed. Jacob also has the most magnificent white beard.
A contrasting image is Zebulun, the Sailor; the sea is prominent in the background and the attributes of his trade, an oar and an anchor are held in his left hand and right respectively. He has a weathered face and wears a very different, more artisan type of costume, multi coloured trousers and a matching reddish cap and top too; a real working man’s clothing. Again, his curly hair and beard are meticulously observed.
My final image is Asher, the Joy Bringer, wearing yet another amazing costume. He is a farmer and cornfields are depicted in the background . However, the clothes he wears are clearly not everyday ones. He carries a basket of loaves to present to the king. These are skillfully depicted and show why Zurbaran had such a reputation as a still life painter. He also carries his attribute of a shepherd’s crook.
What is striking about all thirteen images is their monumentality and gravitas. They are positioned to look down on the viewer. Following the Renaissance and Post Renaissance tradition, biblical events are placed in contemporary setting, hence the opportunity for Zurbaran to display his very particular skills in depicting the sumptuous costumes.
It is well worth a trip to see these magnificent works in the setting designed to display them to full advantage. The Spanish Gallery across the road can also be visited and adds to the feeling of immersion in Spanish painting, especially the Golden Age. A visit to the whole of Auckland Castle is also recommended, as is a relaxing stroll in the beautiful parkland surrounding the castle. It is good to see Bishop Auckland, which used to be a mining town , reinvented as a major cultural centre and visitor attraction in County Durham. It deserves to be successful and regenerate the area.