Zurbarán works hang in the balance

Church of England planning to sell set of paintings for 18 million pounds

The silence of the halls at Auckland Castle, home of the Bishop of Durham, conceals an ancient controversy that would leave the main figures in the dispute quite perplexed had they not been dead for more than 300 years. The dispute is pitting members of the Church of England against each other over the fate of a set of paintings by the Spanish 17th-century artist Francisco de Zurbarán, which now hangs inside the castle.

The 13 paintings - 12 originals and one copy - are collectively known as "The Twelve Tribes of Israel. Jacob and his sons," and have been decorating the Long Dining Room of the castle since the mid-18th century. But now, Church commissioners want to auction them off for an estimated 18 million pounds. The idea of getting rid of the paintings goes back to 2001, but it will materialize this coming summer if all goes according to plan. The project, however, has triggered a wave of protest, and influential Anglicans such as Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum, or Tom Wright, a former bishop of Durham, have spoken out against the sale of artworks, which they consider to be a symbol of Anglican virtues.

The bishop hung the paintings to show that Jews formed a valuable community
The idea of getting rid of the paintings has triggered a wave of protest
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Saving the bishop of Durham's Zurbaráns

So how did Zurbarán, the painter of the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic portraitist of monks and saints, become the standard-bearer for the virtues of a reformed Church? Wright argues that the reasons are the same as those leading to the original purchase of the historic set. In 1756, the Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor, bought them for 124 pounds from a very wealthy Jewish trader named James Méndez.

"Trevor defended the civil rights of Jews in England against the strongly anti-Semitic feelings of the people," explained Wright via an email interview, adding that Trevor then hung the paintings in the Long Dining Room in Auckland Castle to show his guests that Jews formed a valuable community with an important presence in British society.

This gesture by the bishop went down in history as a symbol of tolerance at a time when legislative efforts to give Jews full citizenship rights were being met with strong popular opposition. Neil McGregor, who used to be the director of the National Gallery, which first displayed the Zurbarán set of paintings in 1994, defends the moral value of these artworks. McGregor told The Times last week that, in his opinion, no other paintings speak so powerfully about the Church of England's commitment to society.

Yet the Episcopal residence in Durham was not the original destination of the paintings. Zurbarán painted them around 1640 and they were bound for the Americas. Many Zurbarán scholars believe that the ship that was taking them there was attacked by English pirates, who took them as loot and sold them to the highest bidder.

Enrique Valdivieso, a professor of art history at Seville University, thinks that this theory is likely, and that it would explain how the paintings came to be in England in the first place, considering that "in the 18th century there was no art trade with that country."

Meanwhile, the website of Auckland Castle simply states that Bishop Trevor acquired the "priceless collection" in 1756, "after a history that probably took them to South America before coming to England."

In Valdivieso's opinion, these are not among Zurbarán's best paintings. "They were made with significant participation from the artist's workshop. You can see the strokes by some of his followers," he explains. "They used to work almost serially. Zurbarán had his own factory and store, and hundreds of paintings came out of his workshop."

Another expert, Benito Navarrete Prieto, a professor of art history at Alcalá de Henares University, wrote in the catalogue of the Zurbarán exhibition at Prado Museum in 1995 that these are top-quality paintings, only comparable to those the artist made for the Carthusian monastery of Jerez in 1639.

Former Bishop Wright laments what he sees as the excessive weight of Church commissioners in the Anglican institution, and argues that what they would make from the sale of the set is not much compared with the budgets that these 33 individuals work with.

But a Church spokesman said that once reinvested, the proceeds from the sale of the paintings could cover the costs of up to 10 parishes a year. He also said that the paintings "are not part of the heritage or the nation or the Church of England," and that the commissioners' role is to maximize the benefits of the sale for the benefit of the Church today.

One of the Zurbarán paintings in question.
One of the Zurbarán paintings in question.

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