The Moorish King of Cordoba, Ibn Abi Amir Mahommed, commonly called Almanzor by European writers, was of an ancient Arab family that had its seat at Torrox near Algeciras. Born in 939 A.D., he began his career as a lawyer, but soon found favour in the court of Hakam II, the Andalusian caliph. By 978 he was Chief Minister, but had to share power with his father-in-law, Ghalib, and with the mother of Hakam's heir, Hisham. Inevitably a rupture took place between Ghalib and Almanzor and the two met in battle in 981, the former having professed himself champion of the young caliph and called in the aid of the Christians of León, but the latter having secured the support of the local army. Ghalib's troops were heavily defeated and on his return to Cordoba, the victor assumed his regal name of al-Mansur billah, and effectively became sovereign of Andalusia. The caliph became a mere prisoner of state, and Mansur ultimately assumed the title as well as the prerogatives of king in 996. Unscrupulous in the means he rose to power, he brought Moslem power in Spain to new heights, including achieving the conquest of Santiago de Compostela in 986. He died in 1002 at Medinaceli, and was succeeded by his son Mozaffar.
This composition forms part of a series of pictures painted by Zurbarán, often (as was probably the case here) with the assistance of a studio obrador. The series represents fanciful portraits of the legend of the Seven Infantes of Lara. Zurbarán is apparently unique in portraying in paint the characters from this legend that had been transmitted orally as a cantar de gesta to successive generations, before eventually being recorded in writing in circa 1100. Zurbarán probably knew of the story through plays such as Lope de Vega's tragicomedy El bastardo de Mudarra y los siete infantes de Lara, first performed in 1612, and Alvaro's Mudarra, written in 1635.
This long and complicated legend told of Gonzalo Bustos (or Gustios), lord of Lara, and his seven infantes. Almanzor enters their story when Ruy Velázquez (his portrait with Trafalgar Galleries, London, and a version sold in these Rooms, 29 May 1992, lot 319) betrays his brother-in-law, Don Gonzalo Bustos de Lara (private collection, Madrid), into the hands of the Moorish King. Don Gonzalo was to lose his seven sons in a Moorish ambush as well as their tutor, Nuño Salido (private collection, Madrid). Almanzor took pity on the bereaved Don Gonzalo and gave him his freedom along with a Moorish infanta to console him. She bore Don Gonzalo a son, Mudarra, who much later avenged his half-brothers' deaths by killing Ruy Velázquez.
Paintings of ten of the characters from the legend by Zurbarán and his studio are known. In addition to those mentioned above are those of four of the seven sons: in the Conde de Bustillo collection, Madrid, in a private collection Seville, one formerly with Julius Weitzner, another in the Museo Frans Meyer, Mexico. Portraits of Ruy Velázquez's wife's cousin are in the Musée Goya, Castres and in the Museo Franz Meyer, Mexico.
We are grateful to Doctor Benito Navarrete for confirming the attribution, having examined the picture in the original.