The da Costa Family: Jewish Contribution after Resettlement

by Josie Roberts, Learning Officer

This week the museum opened the Sukkot: Seeking Shelter installation. To accompany it we
have an array of exciting events highlighting some important issues surrounding
migration and shelter, and we are going to shed light on a number of hidden stories of
migration in our permanent collection. Every week, we will be spotlighting a different hidden story in the galleries and on the blog, starting with the da Costa family.

Catherine da Costa was an
accomplished miniature painter and was the first female Anglo-Jewish portrait
artist in England. This beautiful object is a portrait of her son, Abraham.


Miniatures are
often used as keepsakes for those missing loved ones or for those seeking an
introduction to those they desired.

Miniatures went
on journeys, but this artefact is being highlighted because of the migration
story of the da Costas, who lived at a time when Jewish people were resettling
in Britain after the readmission in 1656.

people were clearly settled in Britain after 1066, and there is evidence through
such objects as the Mikveh (ritual bath) that the community had made Britain

After many
attacks and as a result of antisemitism, Jewish people were expelled in 1290
and they did not return for nearly 400 years. Other than the little known
‘Secret Jews’ that lived here during this period there was no formal Jewish
community. Many of the first people that returned belonged to the Sephardi
community (people originating from Spain or Portugal) including the da Costas.

was born in 1679 into a Sephardi family. Her father was Dr Fernando Moses
Mendes and both of Catherine’s parents were born in Portugal and settled in

Mendes was a
highly respected physician and was appointed to Charles II and Catherine of
Braganza. He was a well-known member of the Sephardi community and is still
revered as one of the founding fathers of English Jewry. Publicly he identified
himself as Roman Catholic in order to hold his high position.

The da Costas’ story is one of rejection and re-entry, sometimes leading a life under a
guise in order to be part of society. Their family’s story is one of many
around this period and it is these families that laid the foundation for future
Jewish communities to flourish.

The Sukkot: Seeking Shelter project was supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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