Category Archives: Spanish Art

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82. A Brief Comparison with Velázquez and Zurbarán.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82. A Brief Comparison with Velázquez and Zurbarán.
Murillo’s art is indelibly linked to Seville, the city where he lived and died and which was, with Madrid, the primary centre of artistic activity in the country. Predictably, Murillo’s paintings are often compared with those of contemporaries associated with the city, whether born there or nearby: most notably Diego de Velázquez (1599-1660) and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664).

Velázquez was born in Seville and cut his artistic teeth in the city, before moving permanently to Madrid in 1623.

Zurbarán hailed from Extremadura but moved to Seville in 1629 at the invitation of the city council. He was recognised as Seville’s premier artist for approximately twenty years from the mid 1630s. In 1658, he relocated permanently to Madrid, by which time his standing in Seville was being challenged by younger painters, among them Murillo, Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1622-85) and Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-90).

Velázquez is undoubtedly the star, a realist whose paintings challenged accepted norms by portraying in his greatest works an unstable, unpredictable, multi levelled and illusory world. His palette extends widely from religious topics, genre paintings (daily street life, kitchen, and tavern scenes), and portraits –which ranged from street vendors, royalty, nobility, court jesters and dwarfs– and classical mythology. Inserted in many of the canvases dealing with daily life are exquisite examples of still-life, which was increasingly popular in Spain at the beginning of the 17th century.

Zurbarán is known almost exclusively for his religious works portraying saints, martyrs, monks, with some others of Christ, the Virgin, Holy Family etc., His paintings are marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline, and austerity, very much attuned to ascetic contemplation and spiritual meditation.

Interestingly, he also painted a surprising number of young female saints and martyred virgins many of whom are dressed in elegant, colourful garments.

Some exceptional still-life paintings, ten mythological works dealing only with the labours of Hercules, a few portraits and two historical canvases provide some variety to Zurbarán’s oeuvre.

Murillo: Compared with Velázquez’s realism and Zurbarán’s sobriety, Murillo’s art appears overall more lyrical, delicate, passionate, and youthful. His fame rests mainly on his religious output with his paintings involving the Virgin (her birth, as mother, and above all her immaculate conception) being especially striking and popular. Predictably, perhaps, since Seville was the city that most passionately promoted the argument that Mary was immaculately conceived.  

Still, there is also another side to Murillo’s work that surprises: his genre paintings, which although few –some twenty— are as popular as his devotional paintings. These genre canvases depict marginalized figures, e. g. beggars, street sellers, engaged in daily activities –e. g. delousing, eating grapes, playing dice– which normally would not be subjects for serious artists. Like Velázquez, Murillo also introduces fine still-life details into these works.

Some half dozen portraits complete Murillo’s output. The most notable are his self-portrait (1670-73), his painting of Nicolas Omazur 1672 (Omazur was an avid collector of Murillo’s paintings), and a touching portrait of his friend and benefactor, Justino de Neve, 1665.

Velázquez left Seville for Madrid, in 1623, and –except for two trips to Italy– remained in the capital for the rest of his life. He soon became the Spanish court’s most eminent artist and enjoyed the friendship of the king, Philip IV, who in 1562 promoted him to the prestigious and highly coveted post of Chamberlain of the Royal Palace.

Like Velázquez, Zurbarán too felt the attraction of Madrid, visiting the city briefly by invitation in 1634 and settling there permanently in 1658. He was allegedly hailed by the king, Philip IV, as “painter to the king, king of painters” (artstory) after his contribution in 1634 to the Hall of Realms at the Buen Retiro pleasure palace being constructed for Philip in Madrid. His greatest paintings, however, were those carried out for monasteries and convents in Seville or towns close by.

Murillo: Unlike Velázquez, Murillo never entertained ambitions to be a court painter nor –unlike Zurbarán—was he called to contribute to Madrid’s art world. He did visit the city for a few months in 1658, possibly at the invitation of Velázquez. There, he almost certainly saw the royal collection which included works by such prestigious artists as Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck.

Both Velázquez and Zurbarán died in Madrid; Murillo died in Seville following an accident while painting in Cádiz.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Moffitt, John F. Spanish Painting Studio Vista Publishers 1973
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.

Bartolomé Murillo 1617-1682. His Life and Art in Seville.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo 1617-82.
Of all the painters of Spain’s Golden Age (approx. 1500-1700), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is the one most closely associated with Seville, Spain’s largest and most dynamic city for much of that period, and gateway to the Americas (commonly known as Las Indias).

Murillo was born in Seville in December 1617 and lived there his entire life except for a few months in 1658 when he visited Madrid. Together with his contemporaries Diego de Velázquez (1598-1660) —also from Seville– and Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) –born about 114 kilometres/71 miles north of Seville—Murillo ranks as one of the most celebrated of the many artists who flowered in Spain in the 17th century. 

Murillo’s Early Years.
What we know of Murillo’s early life is sketchy and largely indebted to the painter and art critic, Antonio Palomino (1655-1726). The youngest of 14 children, Murillo was born in Seville to a prosperous middle-class family in December 1617.

By the time he was 11, he had lost both parents and was taken in by an older sister, Ana, and her husband. He apparently showed a gift for painting at an early age, and when he was about 12 was apprenticed to a local artist, Juan del Castillo, a family relative on his mother’s side.

Having completed his apprenticeship by the time he was 15, Murillo made plans in 1633 to go to the Americas where he had family connections. His plans were never realised, and nothing in his work indicates that he had made the trip nor is there any comment by contemporaries or acquaintances to that effect. Furthermore, we know that towards the end of the 1630s he was working in Seville.

By this time, the artistic world of Seville was dominated by Zurbarán, with Velázquez having already established himself in Madrid by 1623. Zurbarán’s star shone between roughly 1635 and 1650 with works marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline, and austerity. They were more attuned to ascetic contemplation than sentimental emotions/feelings which is what Murillo brought to his works and which helped him replace Zurbarán as the painter of choice in the 1650s.

Murillo. The Angels’ Kitchen 1646.

Although Murillo had probably already begun to make a name for himself from around 1640, his first major commission came in 1645, the same year that he married Beatriz Cabrera de Villalobos who was to bear him several children.

The commission was for a series of paintings for one of the cloisters of the Monastery of San Francisco el Grande in Seville. Each canvas was intended to portray events/ miracles from the lives of famous Franciscans, the best known of which is The Angels’ Kitchen 1646, now in the Louvre in Paris.

Around the same time, Murillo also painted some genre paintings drawn from everyday life. These works depicted marginalized figures, e. g. beggars, street sellers, engaged in daily activities which normally would not be subjects for serious artists. However, thanks to the influence of Dutch and Flemish artists and of the Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610), such paintings became increasingly popular. 

Murillo never lost his interest in life on the street, but his output was limited to about twenty paintings possibly because commissions for this type of painting were not as forthcoming as for religious topics. Such commissions came largely from Flemish or Dutch merchants whose cultural background was rich in paintings of every day life.

Ironically, given Murillo’s devout nature and large numbers of religious canvases, these genre paintings proved to be as popular and appealing to the public as his devotional works. His early street life paintings include The Young Beggar (aka. Boy Delousing Himself) and Boys Eating Grapes, both c. 1645; his later renditions include Old Woman and Young Boy (c. 1670) and Young Boys Playing Dice, c. 1665-75).

Murillo’s success led to further devotional commissions. Around 1650, he painted for example The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Virgin of the Rosary, and the intimate, domestic scene of The Holy Family with a Bird.

Murillo. The Holy Family with a Bird. c. 1650.
Murillo. The Virgin of the Rosary. 1650-55.

By now his patrons also including members of Seville’s merchant class. He was helped here by a fortuitous circumstance: the marriage in July 1644 of the daughter of his sister Ana and her husband to José de Vieitia Linaje. Vieitia was a member of the Brotherhood of the True Cross (Hermandad de la Vera Cruz) which had a chapel in San Francisco el Grande. Importantly, many members of the Brotherhood were wealthy foreign merchants. 

Seville’s “Best Painter.
By the early 1650s, Murillo’s status as artist was evidently increasing if the statement made by Archdeacon of Carmona and Canon of Seville, Juan de Federigui, is anything to go by. In May 1655, Federigui requested the artist paint portraits of St. Isidore and St. Leander for the cathedral sacristy. The Archdeacon justified his selection of Murillo praising him as “the best painter that there is today in Seville” (Brown 204a), a comment that probably ruffled Zurbarán and other rivals.

To Madrid and Back, 1658.
In May 1658, Murillo left for Madrid where Velázquez was the leading court painter. [It was in the same year that Zurbarán too left Seville, returning to the capital for the second time, this time permanently.] We do not know the circumstances that prompted the move, but Madrid was by now the place to be for artists and the king, Philip IV, was a major patron of the arts. Furthermore, there was the attraction of the royal collection –to which Murillo would have had access thanks to Velázquez– which included works by such prestigious names as Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyck.

Return to Seville, 1658-80.
Nevertheless, Murillo did not stay long in Madrid since by early December 1658 he is known to be back in Seville. He quickly re-established his status as Seville’s preeminent artist and in 1660 helped found Seville’s Real Academia de Bellas Artes, together with his fellow artists Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1622-85) and Juan de Valdés Leal (1622-90). Murillo served as its first president, a title he shared with Herrera the Younger.

The Crowning Years 1658-1682.

Murillo. Birth of the Virgin, 1660.

In 1660, Murillo painted the Birth of the Virgin for the altar of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception in the Cathedral. In its soft, gentle, and subdued colouration of the birth scene and its freer sfumato technique (blending of tones and outlines), it is Murillo’s first work to reflect the influence of Italian painters he undoubtedly saw on his Madrid trip. 

Several commissions followed in the early 1660s, the most important of which was for the church of Santa María la Blanca, a synagogue converted into a church. Instrumental in helping him secure the commission in 1662 was Justino de Neve (c. 1625-85), a canon of the Cathedral and son of a Flemish merchant who had settled in Seville. Neve would become a good friend and important patron of Murillo.

Murillo. St. Francis embracing the Crucified Christ. c.1668-69.

Another major commission –of 18 paintings– came in 1665 for the main altar and side altars of the Convent of the Capuchin Fathers (an austere branch of the Franciscan Order) in Seville. Murillo worked quickly, completing twelve by the end of 1666 when the departure of the head of the monastery and lack of interest by his two successors saw the assignment halted. Murillo returned to the project in 1668, at which time he painted the moving canvas portraying Christ gently putting his right arm around the shoulder of the kneeling St. Francis (St. Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ c. 1670).

Murillo. Return of the prodigal Son. 1667-70.

Further commissions came Murillo’s way including one for the newly built Hospital de la Caridad (located near the Plaza de Toros) and intended to care for the aged and infirm. The Brotherhood of Charity (Hermandad de la Caridad), which had admitted Murillo to its ranks in 1665, commissioned eight works which Murillo concluded between 1667 and 1672. Appropriately –given the Charity’s role– Murillo’s paintings portray saintly or religious figures demonstrating kindness/love/forgiveness/ generosity: e. g. The Return of the Prodigal Son, Feeding of the Five Thousand, St. Catherine of Hungary Curing the Sick

Murillo. Immaculate Conception of the Venerables. c. 1678.

Towards the end of the 1670s, Murillo received a commission from Justino de Neve, for a painting for his private oratory/ chapel. It turned out to be Murillo’s most celebrated rendition of a widely discussed topic, especially in Seville: whether the Virgin Mary had been conceived without sin. Disputes between Franciscans and Dominicans and their respective supporters were fierce/heated and leading artists in Seville all contributed their versions of the theme. A declaration by Pope Alexander VII in 1661 came out on the side of the Franciscans and the majority of Sevillanos: Mary was free from original sin. Fireworks, bullfights and other festivities were organised to celebrate the decision.

Murillo painted about two dozen versions of the immaculate conception but the one he did for Neve is widely recognised not only as his best, but as one of the most iconic of all representations of the theme. Known as the Immaculate Conception of the Venerables, it was donated by Neve to the Hospital de Venerables, a charitable institution established by him in 1676 as a residence for retired priests. [This painting is sometimes referred to as the Soult Madonna, after the French marshal who appropriated it during the Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in the Peninsular War 1808-14. After Soult’s death, it was auctioned and bought by the Musée du Louvre for the highest price ever paid for a work of art at the time. It finally returned to Spain in 1941 and was installed in the Prado Museum –where it remains to this day– following an arrangement between the French Vichy government and the Franco dictatorship.]

Murillo’s Death, 1680.
By 1680, Seville’s monopoly on trade with the Americas began to weaken. Larger transatlantic vessels found it increasingly difficult to navigate the Guadalquivir, and most Atlantic ships were now loading and unloading at Cádiz.

Merchants followed suit, one of whom was the Genoese-born Giovanni Bielato (?-1681). Although little is known about him, he is recorded as being active in Cádiz in 1662. Whether he knew Murillo is unclear, but he evidently liked his paintings. Shortly before he died in Genoa in 1681 he donated a collection of seven of Murillo’s works to that city’s Capuchin Order.

Murillo. Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. 1682.

Why mention Cádiz and Bielato? Well, Bielato also left a bequest to the Capuchins of Cádiz who “used the money to commission an altarpiece by Murillo for their church” (Brown 227b). And Cádiz? It was while he was working in Cádiz on the painting, the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, that Murillo fell from the scaffolding supporting him and suffered internal injuries from which he died a few months later. The altarpiece was completed by his pupil, Francisco Meneses Osorio.

Murillo was buried in the Church of Santa Cruz in Seville but his remains were sadly lost when the church was torn down by the French during the Peninsular War (1808-14). [The present Church of Santa Cruz was formerly known as the Clérigos del Espíritu Santo (Convent of the Holy Spirit of the Clergy Minor), a 17th-18th century building.]

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Moffitt, John F. Spanish Painting Studio Vista Publishers 1973
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Palomino,Antonio on Murillo: pp. 420-24.
The Angels’ Kitchen:
The Beggar Boy, Boys Eating Grapes, Old Woman and Young Boy, Young Boys Playing Dice: Wikipedia
The Virgin of the Rosary:
The Holy Family with a Bird:
Birth of the Virgin:
St, Francis Embracing the Crucified Christ:
Return of the Prodigal Son:
Immaculate Conception of the Venerables:
Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine:

Zurbarán. Christ on the Cross. Temptation of St. Jerome.

Zurbarán. Christ on the Cross 1627. Temptation of St. Jerome 1657.
Although from an agricultural village in Extremadura and of modest means, Zurbarán overcame his provincial background and social inferiority to become the leading painter in Seville, Spain’s most vibrant and wealthiest city for much of the 17th century and –with the capital, Madrid— the country’s artistic heart. This despite a series of floods, a virulent bubonic plague in 1649 that reduced Sevillle’s population from about 120,000 to 60,000, and social unrest that led to an uprising three years later!

Zurburán first set up his workshop in Llerena and lived there from 1617 to 1629 when he moved to Seville. Except for a brief stay in Madrid in 1634-35, he remained in Seville from 1629 to 1658, when he returned to Madrid. With his fame much diminished by then, he died in the capital six years later. [For a fuller biography, click here.]

Generally speaking, Zurbarán’s paintings can be divided into three groups:

  1. Religious paintings. These constitute the vast majority of Zurbarán’s work. Most are paintings of monks and male saints, but there is a surprising number of canvases depicting pious virgins or martyred female saints.
  2. Still life paintings. These are few in number, although still life objects (fruits, flowers, kitchen objects) are often incorporated into his religious canvases as symbols identifying holy figures. But where Zurbarán excels is in those works where still life objects are the exclusive focus of a painting. In this, Zurbarán reflects the increasing interest in  still life in the late 16th-early 17th centuries.
  3. Ten mythological paintings and one battle scene. The former are entitled the Labours of Hercules and the latter is known as the Defence of Cádiz. This small group –painted in 1634– was commissioned for the decoration of the Hall of Realms (Salón de Reinos) in the Buen Retiro pleasure palace being constructed in Madrid for the king, Philip IV.

Religious Paintings.
Apart from those works destined for the American colonial market, Zurbarán’s religious paintings were commissioned mainly by religious/ monastic orders/communities primarily in Seville and other towns in western Andalusia (Marchena, Arcos de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera) or Extremadura (Llerena, Guadalupe). There were also some painted for private sponsors whose presence might be indicated on the lowest register of the painting (usually a corner) and looking upward at the crucified Christ.

In this post, we’ll look at two works by Zurbarán, Christ on the Cross (1627) –one of the most popular topics in religious art for both Renaissance and Baroque painters and the Temptation of St. Jerome (1640). The first established Zurbarán’s credentials as a significant artist in Seville, and the second is one of his best-known paintings portraying saints.

Zurbarán. Christ on the Cross. 1627,

It was Zurbarán’s first known representation of Christ on the Cross –painted in 1627, before he moved to Seville —that gained him entry into the lucrative, competitive Sevillian market. Commissioned by the Dominican Monastery of San Pablo el Real, it had an immediate impact and became the template for numerous subsequent depictions of the Crucified Christ by Zurbarán.

The 1627 painting shows Christ dramatically hanging  on a roughly hewn cross with his nailed feet resting on a small wooden ledge attached to the vertical beam of the cross. Against a very dark background, a strong shaft of light from Christ’s left picks up anatomical details of His torso, arms and legs and the creases/folds of His loincloth.

From the serene, realistic face resting on His right shoulder and from His closed eyes, it seems clear that Christ has died and is beyond pain. But what gives the painting its particular poignancy is the imbalance of the arms thanks to the kilter of the body following the weight of Christ’s head that sags to the right. Christ’s right arm is elongated and curves gradually down to the torso while His left –with its pronounced shoulder muscle–  stretches at an awkward angle up from the torso as the weight of the head pulls at it in the opposite direction. This is quite unlike the majority of crucifixion paintings in which the arms are evenly balanced and frequently form a triangle with the horizontal piece to which Christ’s hands are nailed. 

The starkly outlined/illuminated image of Christ against the completely dark background shows the influence of tenebrism, first fully developed by the Italian master, Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610).  The influence of Caravaggio can also be seen in the hard outline of the body and the angle of light from the right of the canvas which underlines the sinews and muscles of Christ’s body. 

At the same time, the painting fulfills part of the tenets advocated by the Catholic Church in its response to Protestantism as drawn up by the Council of Trent, 1545-63. The Council called for painters to encourage piety and move the faithful to compassion. This could be done either by dynamic activity with multiple figures or, as in this case, by focusing on the subject matter and eliminating external distractions or irrelevant ornamentation, so that worshippers could meditate exclusively on the profound significance of Christ’s sacrifice.

Velázquez: Christ Crucified 1632.

Zurbarán’s Christ on the Cross invites comparison with the same thematic painting –Christ Crucified, 1632– by his more famous, fellow Sevillian artist and acquaintance, Diego de Velázquez (whose nomination for knighthood in the prestigious Order of Santiago in 1658 was supported by Zurbarán). The basic format is similar with the notable use of the dark background that highlights the figure of Christ. However, in Zurbarán’s version, Christ is more dramatically illuminated and the body –with its prominent rib cage, sinewy arms and sagging head— conveys a more anguished portrayal of the dead Saviour.  The bowed legs capture brilliantly the dead weight of the body with only the outstretched arms preventing the knees knuckling under the burden. Finally, the roughly hewn cross suggests that it was hastily put together, reflecting perhaps the desire of the Romans and Jewish leaders to get the crucifixion over as speedily as possible. Our tastes differ, but in this case an argument can be made that Zurbarán has surpassed his more famous contemporary in evoking both the poignancy and anguish of that moment after Christ’s death.

Saints. Although the 1627 Christ on the Cross helped establish Zurbarán’s credentials in the competitive Sevillian market, he is best known for his depiction of saints and monks. Saints were often painted according to the sufferings or temptations they were known to face; monks were more likely to be painted with the role they played in their order in mind.

The Temptation of St. Jerome (1640), one of the several paintings Zurbarán did for the Hieronymite (Jeronomite) Monastery of Guadalupe in Extremadura.

Zurbarán. Temptation of St. Jerome. 1640.

As a young man, St. Jerome (c. 342/47-420) enjoyed a boisterous life studying Latin literature and indulging in sexual pursuits; both activities left him feeling very guilty following his conversion to Christianity. After rising to the position of cardinal within the church, he retired to a cave to meditate and do penance. In the Temptation…, Jerome’s religious celibacy is tested by the appearance of a group of six elegantly dressed young ladies.

The painting is divided into two contrasting halves. To the left, a thin/ scrawny St. Jerome –highlighted against the yawning darkness of the cave behind him– turns away dramatically from the smartly dressed ladies to the right.  Everything about the Saint’s posture –the long, sinewy arms, gaunt upper body and the head directed away from the ladies— betrays the tension of a troubled individual struggling with temptation/ his feelings.

The ladies, for their part, are armed with musical instruments and dressed according to the fashion of Zurbarán’s time. This chronological anachronism of a 4th-5th century saint together with ladies in 17th century dress is not likely to be accidental. It reflects Zurbarán’s practice in his portrayal of female saints or virgins, although in this case the ladies represent the attractions of carnal temptation (more like courtesans) than saints or virgins.

Between St, Jerome and the ladies, and also highlighted against the background, is a skull surrounded by books, visible reminders of the vanity of earthly life (the skull) and the salvation offered by the books, sources of meditation and knowledge. Together, these objects –mini exercises in still life– are what stand between the troubled saint and temptation.

In general, the Temptation of St. Jerome responds to the Church’s call to meditate and reflect on the temptations of earthly life and their transitory nature. Dramatically, the Saint looks directly out at the faithful (or us) drawing them/us into the picture at the same time that his arms point in the direction of the ladies, the source of his distress.  

Valdés Leal. Temptation of St. Jerome. 1657.

The Caravaggesque technique of vivid illumination against a dark background as seen here is viewed as part of the Baroque love of dramatic contrast. This stylistic technique is combined with another artifice much favoured by the Baroque: the deceptiveness of appearance. It was common in paintings of the temptations of St. Jerome to depict the ladies clearly as erotic figures as for example Juan de Valdés Leal’s version, painted in 1657. Valdés Leal makes no effort to conceal the eroticism of the dancing, extravagantly dressed and elaborately coiffured women. By contrast, the ladies in Zurbarán’s version seem more like demure maidens: their dresses are elegant but simple and their hair unpretentious. Only the Saint’s posture points to the deceptiveness of their apparent innocence. They are not what they appear to be –demure young ladies—but a dangerous source of temptation leading to man’s downfall. The contemporary clothes, in this context, can be seen as a message for the monks of Guadalupe: the wiles of women are as dangerous to them in the 17th century as they were to St. Jerome. 

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 New Haven and London 1998

Glendinning, O. N. V “The Visual Arts in Spain,” in Russell, P. E. ed. Spain. A Companion to Spanish Studies, pp. 500-502 New York 1987.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Zurbaran Exhibition 1987:
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.For interesting comments on the Temptation of St. Jerome, see

Zurbarán 1598-1664. Brief Biography and Review of his Art.

Zurbaran’s Life 1598-1664.
When asked to name some great Spanish painters, Francisco de Zurbarán may not come immediately to mind to the casual art lover. Nevertheless, he figures prominently in that celebrated group of Spanish Golden Age artists who flowered in the 17th century, including Diego de Velázquez (1598-1660), Jusepe de Ribera (1590-1652), and Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82). Lesser-known contemporaries usually include Alonso Cano (1610-67), Juan Valdés Leal (1622-90) and Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1627-85).

Born in Fuente de Cantos, Extremadura, an agricultural village about 114 kilometres (71 miles) north of Seville, Zurbarán was sent to Seville by his father in 1614 to serve an apprenticeship which lasted 3 years, after which he settled and set up a workshop in Llerena, 124 kilometres (77 miles) north of Seville and 30 kilometres (18 miles) east of Fuente de Cantos.

It is possible that Zurbarán left Seville with its lucrative market because it was difficult for an unknown artist of very modest background and with no connections to break into an artistic milieu controlled by a closed circle of guilds and family ties. In addition, his mentor in Seville, Pedro Díaz de Villanueva, was a minor artist and does not appear to have been influential. 

Zurbarán lived in Llerena from 1617 to 1629. Shortly after arriving there, he married María Páez who was 9 years older than him. She died in 1623 or 1624, following the birth of their third child. In 1625, he married Beatriz de Morales, a wealthy widow from a prominent local family.

Zurbarán, St, Gregory. 1626.

While living in Llerena, Zurbarán evidently kept in touch with events in Seville because in January 1626 he signed his first commission in the city (for the Dominican monastery of San Pablo). But he was still a largely unknown provincial painter and the amount offered for the twenty-one paintings stipulated in the contract was very small compared to what established artists in Seville could command.

Why then accept a small fee and a token advance? It probably had much to do with his improved financial (and social) status following his second marriage. In other words, his family wealth was subsiding his work while at the same time allowing him to gain entry into the most financially rewarding market for art in the country, especially for religious works.

Although few of these commissions have survived, they clearly fulfilled the demanding requirements stipulated by his monastic patrons since in 1629 Zurbarán was invited to relocate to Seville. The invitation was extended by the city council which, in the words of their spokesman, declared that “the city should attempt [to persuade] Francisco Zurbarán to remain here to live” (Brown 135b).

The invitation did not go unchallenged by the painters’ guild in Seville which in May 1630 demanded that Zurbarán pass an exam required of all painters practicing in the city. Zurbarán appealed to the city council. The outcome remains unknown but the fact that he was working on a painting in June 1630 suggests that the appeal was successful.

Zurbarán. Hercules fighting the Hydra 1634.

By 1634, Zurbarán’s prestige was sufficiently established for him to receive an invitation –in all likelihood instigated by Diego de Velázquez, whom Zurbarán had known in Seville– to contribute a number of paintings for the Hall of Realms at the Buen Retiro pleasure palace being constructed for the king, Philip IV, in Madrid. Zurbarán’s contribution consisted of ten mythological paintings on the Labours of Hercules and a battle scene, the Defence of Cádiz, which formed part of a series that included Velázquez’s famous Surrender of Breda.

However, no further commissions appear to have been forthcoming at Court despite the king’s favourable view of him. By 1635 Zurbarán was back in Seville where he remained until 1658.

Between 1635 and 1640, Zurbarán completed numerous commissions for various monastic orders from Seville, Llerena, Marchena, Arcos de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera and from as far away as Guadalupe.

By the late 1630s, he also found a new market in the American colonies. The demand was high and most of the paintings were in fact executed by Zurbarán’s assistants. Furthermore, they were not usually commissioned but painted on speculation and handed over to the captain of the ship carrying them who sought buyers. It was a risky business but evidently worked since Zurbarán continued the practice for some sixteen years, 1640-1656.

By the 1650s, Zurbarán star was beginning to fade as younger artists –offering different visions– competed for commissions and Zurbarán’s austere, ascetic style became largely irrelevant to be replaced a more sentimental piety best represented by the man who supplanted him as Seville’s main painter, Bartolomé Murillo (1617-82).

At the same time, a more theatrical, energetic style emerged with another Sevillian artist, Juan Valdés Leal (1622-90): e. g. compare the more sculptural rendition by Zurbarán of the Temptation of St. Jerome (1640) with Valdés Leal’s theatrical version (1657). A glance at Valdés Leal’s Miracle of St. Ildephonsus, 1661, –a canvas overflowing with riotous, frenetic activity— further shows how far Zurbarán was removed from this energetic style. 

Herrera. The Triumph of St. Hermenegild. 1654.

Yet another challenge came from Francisco de Herrera the Younger (1627-85). Also born in Seville, Herrera left the city in his early youth over disputes with his father and did not return until 1655, by which time he had been exposed to the latest artistic fashion in Italy and Madrid. One work, The Triumph of St. Hermenegild, 1654, immediately established, with its emotional appeal, his credentials in his native city.

Zurbarán’s fading star in the face of such challenges may well have prompted him to head back to Madrid in 1658 which had by now replaced Seville as the “place to be” for artists. But there was also another more prosaic factor: financial problems from the decline in commissions in Seville, and in 1656 and 1657 the destruction of the fleets from the New World by the English, which ruined many in Seville, including Zurbarán.

This time, although he did receive some minor commissions, the reception in Madrid was not as effusive as it had been in 1634; Zurbarán’s artistic temperament was too set in its ways to allow him to adapt to the new style successfully.

His last years were a struggle and his health declined but whether he died in poverty, as some claim, in uncertain; what is clear, however, is that by now his fame as artist had declined. 

Brief Review of Zurbarán’s Art.
Zurbarán is known almost exclusively for his religious works portraying saints, monks, martyrs, with some others of Christ, the Virgin, Holy Family etc., commissioned mainly by monastic orders in Seville and nearby towns. In general, these paintings are marked by simplicity, restraint, dignity, discipline and austerity more attuned to ascetic contemplation than sentimental emotions/feelings evidenced in much of the art of the period.

Complementing the sobriety of his style is the practice of tenebrism, a style of painting whereby figures are dramatically illuminated against a dark background by a shaft of light. This device owes much to the influence of the Italian master Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1573-1610), so much so that Zurbarán was frequently referred to the Spanish Caravaggio.

However, an interesting exception to the simplicity and austerity evident in the male saints etc. is the surprising number of young female saints and martyred virgins many of whom were dressed in elegant, colourful garments. In these paintings, the clothes are what catch the attention and we require symbols –associated with the saints/virgins– to identify the works as religious in intent.

It was not that Zurbarán was unfamiliar with the prevailing trends in Seville especially of, for example, Italian-inspired images of the Virgin surrounded by clouds with angels, cherubs, doves and putti. But this type of painting seemed to suit his personality less than the sober presentation of monks and saints, the portrayal of whom was governed furthermore by the requirements stipulated by the monastic orders that commissioned them. A painting of the Immaculate Conception (1632, one of several that Zurbarán did) and The Annunciation (1637) show this more florid type:

Other kinds of paintings by Zurbarán are few.  His most accomplished are his “Still Lifes,” a genre that had become increasingly popular and which found in Zurbarán one of its best practitioners. Notable are Still Life with Lemons and Oranges and Rose (1633), Agnus Dei ( of which there are several versions), and Still Life with Vessels (c. 1650).

Zurbarán Still-life with Lemons, Oranges and Rose. 1633.

As for the rest, we are left with 10 mythological paintings entitled The Labours of Hercules for Philip IV’s Hall of Realms in the newly-built Buen Retiro Palace in Madrid, a historical piece, The Defence of Cádiz, (both done in 1634 during a brief stay in Madrid), and some isolated pieces: Portrait of a Boy (the Duke of Medinaceli)?, Funeral ?, Portrait of Dr. Juan Martínez de Serrano ?, and Battle between Christians and Muslims at El Sotillo 1637-39.


Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 New Haven and London 1998.
Glendinning, O. N. V “The Visual Arts in Spain,” in Russell, P. E. ed. Spain. A Companion to Spanish Studies, pp. 500-502 New York 1987.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Zurbaran Exhibition 1987:
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Image of St. Francis in Meditation by Zurbarán:
Image of St. Apollonia by Zurbarán:
Image of Father Juan de Carrión by Zurbarán:,_145.png
Image of The Immaculate Conception by Zurbarán:
Image of The Annunciation by Zurbarán:,_por_Francisco_de_Zurbar%C3%A1n.jpg
Image of Still Life with Oranges, Lemons and Rose by Zurbarán:,_Oranges_and_a_Rose
Image of St. Gregory by Zurbarán:
Image of Hercules fighting the Hydra: Francisco de Zurbarán – Galería online, Museo del Prado., Public Domain,
Image of The Temptations of St. Jerome by Zurbarán:
Image of The Temptations of St. Jerome by Juan Valdés Leal:
Image of Miracle of St. Ildephonsus by Valdés Leal:,_Miracle_of_St_Ildefonsus_01.jpg
Image of St. Hermenegild by Francisco de Herrera:


Velázquez: Las Meninas (1656): Reality and the Viewer.

Velázquez: Las Meninas (1656): Reality and the Viewer.
Of the many descriptions of Las Meninas (aka The Ladies in Waiting, Maids of Honour or The Family of King Philip IV), one of the most frequent is that the scene depicted has all the appearance of reality, that it is true to life. A word sometimes used to describe this is verisimilitude.

But Velázquez’s portrayal of scenes realistically should not surprise us. By the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, change was in the air in the art world thanks to the influence of the naturalistic paintings of the Italian Michelangelo Caravaggio (1573-1610) and to a general change in cultural taste away from Renaissance idealism and assurance to the Baroque world’s shifting culture of uncertainty.

Some Contextual Background.
Several non-artistic developments in the 16th century, e. g. secular and philosophical, religious, literary provide a wider cultural context that helps explain this shift towards realism.

1. The rediscovery of scepticism, the nature of which is captured in the title Quod nihil scitur (Nothing is known), published in 1581, by the Spanish-Portuguese philosopher Francisco Sanchez (Portuguese Sanches). For Sanchez, the senses are susceptible to error and since our knowledge is based on our senses our knowledge of the world is also susceptible to error. Hence we know nothing.

2. One of the recommendations of the famous Catholic Council of Trent (a series of meetings held between 1545 and 1563) to artists was to make their paintings as direct, compelling and as relevant as possible to ordinary people. One obvious way to achieve this was to bring the Bible’s message “up to date” by dressing biblical and holy figures in contemporary clothes and/or locating them in recognisable settings. 

3. The popularity of realistic prose fiction especially in Spain, beginning with La Celestina, 1499 and continuing with works such as La Lozana Andaluza 1527, and Lazarillo de Tormes 1554. This kind of prose fiction –i. e. novels– flourished especially at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries in the form of the picaresque novel. Guzmán de Alfarache (Part I, 1599, Part II 1604) by Mateo Alemán (a Sevillian, like Velázquez) is the best known and most influential of these. Another, Francisco de Quevedo’s El buscón (The Swindler, written ca. 1604-08, pub. 1626), is a brilliant satire on converso aspirations and a challenging verbal labyrinth for readers. Finally, this was also the time when Miguel de Cervantes published: Don Quixote (Part I 1605, Part II 1615), a realistic novel par excellence although not picaresque.

4. In addition, other events and discoveries also helped undermine the certainties that had guided people’s view of the world for centuries: Columbus’s “discovery” of a New World (America) in 1492 suddenly expanded known geographical frontiers and introduced Europeans to new, exotic civilisations; the appearance of Protestantism, generally assigned to 1517, when Martin Luther’s published his famous 95 propositions in Latin attacking church corruption. The new movement challenged the certainty of Catholicism’s claim to be sole interpreter of scripture. In 1543, Copernicus’s proposal that the earth orbited the sun and not vice versa questioned the authority of the ancients.

Las Meninas. 1656.

Velázquez’s interest in the portraying world around him realistically is evident from his earliest paintings in Seville, e. g. his peasant scenes and bodegón works (drawn from daily life often in everyday eating places,) with still life (utensils and foods).

Even his religious canvases such as Christ in the House of Martha and Mary 1618, or The Supper at Emmaus c. 1620 betray the same realistic tendency. In these, the religious message is framed in contemporary, 17th-century kitchen scenes combining bodegón and still life features.

Apart from its courtly setting, what distinguishes Las Meninas from these early works is its compositional complexity. Where the message in the early works is relatively straightforward, it is not only impossible to nail Las Meninas down to a particular interpretation but it is a compositional challenge.

If we compare Las Meninas to some of Velázquez’s early realistic or slice of life paintings, e. g. Three Men at Table (c. 1617), The Three Musicians (c. 1617-18), or Peasants at Table (c. 1618), we see that Velázquez was already treading the path leading to the more complex representation in his greatest work.

The musicians and the peasants are caught informally in mid activity, singing or eating, with some even looking outwards seemingly aware that they are being observed by Velázquez. Here, the artist is clearly outside the picture, at our side as it were, and even though we are drawn towards the figures by the exchange of gazes, there is no doubt that we are outside the picture, looking in.

Las Meninas take us a significant step further. It is more than just a realistic picture of a moment in the daily life of the court surrounding the Infanta Princess Margarita (1651-73). By inserting himself into the scene and showing himself apparently interrupted in the act of painting, Velázquez has added an extra depth or dimension to his work. We as viewers find ourselves facing an artist –brush poised in his hand– who appears to be looking directly at us, creating thereby the illusion that we are part of the picture, that he is painting us. Not only that. Several of the figures are also looking out at us, strengthening the sensation that we are in the room witnessing things happening right in front of our eyes.

From our vantage point of being in the same room as the Infanta and her retinue, we can appreciate the French poet, Theophile Gautier’s (1811-72), witty summary “So, where’s the painting” (Picasso and the Spanish Tradition 121).

That’s how real, verisimilar Las Meninas seems. When I first saw the painting as a young student, I felt that I had inadvertently intruded on Princess Margarita and her retinue. It was many years ago when Las Meninas occupied a room on its own in the Prado, and I happened upon it when there was no-one else in that room. On the wall opposite the painting there hung a mirror. Looking at the painting in the mirror, and adjusting my position until the painting’s frame disappeared, I had the uncanny sensation of actually being in the room with Velázquez and his subjects and that those looking out of the picture had just caught sight of me. I had just interrupted them. It was as if the painting had disappeared, so powerful was the illusion I had of being there. 

Being an illusion, it was not true, of course. It was a lie, but a convincing one, confirming Pablo Picasso’s famous observation: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth … at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” Pablo Picasso. 

Probably no painting is such a convincing lie as Las Meninas, especially if, as the Velázquez scholar, Jonathan Brown, argues that it was not an observed group portrait but a product of Velázquez’s imagination. It has all the appearance of truth but is a fabrication, an illusion.

The illusion starts with the almost life-size figures (the canvas measures 10.5ft. x 9ft., 307cm x 274cm) who have been caught in mid activity or “arrested motion” (Brown J “On the Meaning ...”  90) by the arrival of King Philip IV and his second wife, Queen Mariana, whose blurred images are captured in the mirror on the wall.

From the body position of the Infanta Margarita, the maid of honour to her left–Doña Isabel de Velasco–, the dwarf Maribárbola (towards the bottom right of the painting), and Velázquez himself, they appear to have only just caught sight of the royal couple (or us!). They look as if they have been interrupted by the royal presence (or by us!).

On the other hand, three figures (Doña María de Sarmiento –the other maid of honour–, Doña Marcela de Ulloa, attendant to the meninas, and the buffoon, Nicolás de Pertusato) do not appear to have registered the company of the king and queen (or ours!). They continue what they were doing: Doña María is extending a reddish ceramic jug to the Princess, Doña Marcela continues talking to an unidentified gentleman to her left, and Nicolás de Pertusato is busy balancing his left foot on the back of the dog.

Nevertheless, whether looking out (the Infanta, Doña Isabel, Maribarbola, the unidentified man and Velázquez) or absorbed in what they are doing (Doña Maria, Doña Marcela, Nicolás), they are all caught in the act of doing something although not in unison. They are not posing for Velázquez who is supposedly painting someone he is looking at (probably the king and queen reflected in the mirror), or of course “us” since we occupy the same space as the monarchs when we look at the painting.

The magic of the painting lies in its deceptive simplicity. Velázquez, with his brush poised above his palette is clearly at work on a large painting to judge from the canvas before him. We are not privy to what he is working on, although it is likely to be the king and queen reflected in the mirror facing us. In the last analysis, it doesn’t really matter because we are never going to find out. Clearly, however, he is not painting the infanta and her retinue; Princess Margarita and Doña María have their backs to him and not a single person in the room is looking at him.

The illusion is complicated by both ambiguity and contradiction. On the one hand, Velázquez appears not to be painting the infanta and her retinue when in fact the finished product does just that; on the other hand, he seems to be painting us (since he is looking at us) when in fact he is not doing so. 

So what then is Velázquez’s aim? Are the infanta and her retinue the object of Las Meninas? Why does Velázquez include himself even relegating the king and queen to blurred mirror images? This is indeed audacious: a servant, albeit a courtier and royal favourite, giving himself greater prominence than his master! Is this intended to demonstrate that Velázquez has achieved the social status he so desperately sought

By creating an illusory world into which we are drawn, Velázquez is challenging accepted ways of thinking. Las Meninas falls very much within the Baroque obsession with appearance and reality. The Baroque world is –like life itself—multidimensional and things are not always what they appear to be. In the same way that language can be manipulated –for example, Quevedo’s famous poem Poderoso caballero is a verbal labyrinth in which words have more than one meaning so that the world is not unidimensional—so too what we see may be susceptible to different interpretations. Sight is one of the least dependable of our senses.

The dichotomy of illusion/ disillusion, of being both within and outside the painting as presented by Velázquez is a very sophisticated sleight of hand. Velázquez is in the act of painting, there are “real” paintings hanging on the wall behind him, but they are not really “real” because they are Velázquez ’s copies of the paintings in his studio made by his son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo, which in turn were copies Mazo had made of the myth of Minerva and Arachne by Peter Paul Rubens and the fable of Apollo and Pan by Jacob Jordaens.

The illusion of being inside the painting or being a witness to what is going on in Velázquez ’s studio has an interesting parallel in the greatest work of Velázquez ’s near contemporary, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). Like Velázquez in Las Meninas, Cervantes creates a situation in Don Quixote, that draws the reader into the text in the same way that the viewer in drawn into Las Meninas. It happens in Part II, Chapters 2, 3 and especially 4. In Chapter 2, a local student, Sansón Carrasco, has just returned from Salamanca (Spain’s most famous university) with the news that a book has just been published about their adventures in Part I. Don Quixote is disappointed that none of his “great feats” are recorded in Part I (but his squire Sancho Panza is delighted at the prominent role he plays in it). Nonetheless, Don Quixote, despite his disappointment asks if the author of Part I has promised a second part.

This is a key question which propels us “into the picture” or “into the text” as it were. How can there be a second part if Don Quixote and Sancho have still to continue their adventures?  And yet, we have in our hands the complete text of Part II, which is a record of their adventures!

What Cervantes has done is create the illusion that we are not reading Part II, but accompanying Don Quixote and Sancho as they undertake their adventures. We witness their adventures in the same way we are witnesses to the informal scene of the Infanta Margarita and her retinue.

Of course, Las Meninas is art and Don Quixote is literature but their very complexity is complementary and reflects the complexity of life. The worlds both present us are complex, multidimensional and ever changing as the endless interpretations applied to them confirm.

Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.
Brown, Jonathan. “On the Meaning of Las Meninas,” in Images and Ideas in Seventeenth-Century Spanish Painting Princeton,1979, 87-110.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Brown, Jonathan ed. Picasso and the Spanish Tradition New Haven: Yale UP 1996.
Brown, Jonathan “Master and Masterpieces,” Lecture to The Frick Collection, April 30, 2014
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York 2016′
López-Rey, José   Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Robbins, Jeremy The Challenges of Uncertainty. An Introduction to Seventeenth-Century Spanish Literature. New York 1998.
Picasso quote: “STATEMENT TO MARIUS DE ZAYAS,” 1923,’Picasso Speaks,’ The Arts, New York, May 1923, pp. 315-26; reprinted in Alfred Barr: Picasso, New York 1946, pp. 270-1.
Velázquez: Las Meninas
Velázquez: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in National Gallery, London:
Velázquez: The Supper at Emmaus
Velázquez: The Three Musicians: Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain,
Velázquez: Three Men at Table The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Public Domain,
Velázquez: Peasants at Table (c. 1618-19):


Velázquez. Las Meninas. Introduction and Status Symbol.

Velázquez. Las Meninas. Introduction and Status Symbol.
Few paintings have received such critical acclaim or been subject to so many interpretations and analyses as Velázquez’s Las Meninas aka The Ladies in Waiting (1656). Within 50 years (1692), the Italian Baroque artist, Luca Giordano, called it “the theology of painting,” following on the comment of his friend (and Velázquez’s biographer), Antonio Palomino, that “just as theology is superior to all other branches of knowledge, so is this picture the greatest example of painting.”  Francisco de Goya made a print of Las Meninas in 1778, Edouard Manet –after seeing the painting and others by Velázquez called him “a painter’s painter.” Pablo Picasso paid homage to the work with a series of 45 variations/ interpretations over a four-month period in 1957. Such was the impact of its realism that the French poet, Theophile Gautier (1811-72), upon seeing it commented “So, where’s the painting.” In 1985, a poll of artists and critics organized by the Illustrated London News, voted Las Meninas the world’s greatest painting.

Las Meninas. 1656.

The Painting.
Much of what we know historically about Las Meninas is owed to the painter and art critic Antonio Palomino (1655-1726). Thanks to him, we know that the setting depicted in the painting/ group portrait was a room in the Royal Alcázar where Velázquez had an apartment. It was a privileged location, having previously belonged to Prince Baltasar Carlos before his death in 1646.

Palomino also identified all but one of the individuals in the painting, the dimensions of which –(10ft. x 9ft. 305cm x 274cm) make the figures almost life size. In the centre is the Infanta/Princess Margarita (1651-73) attended by her two ladies-in waiting (the meninas), Doña María Agustina de Sarmiento –who extends a reddish ceramic jug to the Princess– and Doña Isabel de Velasco, whose gaze is directed towards us.

To Doña Isabel’s left, and in the lower right-hand corner, we see the dwarf Maribárbola and a dog (usually identified as a mastiff) being teased by the Italian-born buffoon Nicolás de Pertusato. Slightly in shadow behind Doña Isabel and Maribárbola stands Doña Marcela de Ulloa, attendant to the meninas, in conversation with an unidentified male attendant.

Along the back wall, Don José Nieto, the royal chamberlain to the queen is silhouetted as he pauses in an open doorway. To the left of the doorway, a mirror reflects the blurred image of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana, his second wife (she was also his niece!).

Finally, next to the easel that dominates the left side of the picture, we see Velázquez himself, who appears to be taking a momentary pause from his painting. On his chest, highlighted against the black of his tunic, is the red cross of the Order of Santiago, a source of some considerable controversy (see below).

Decorating the wall above the mirror and open doorway, we can see, if only dimly, two large paintings, the subject matter of which are taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here Velázquez engages in a bit of sleight of hand, one of many in Las Meninas: the two works represent two paintings that hung in Velázquez’s studio and were the works of Velázquez’s son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo. These, in turn, were copies Mazo made of the myth of Minerva and Arachne by Rubens and the fable of Apollo and Pan by Jacob Jordaens. So, what we see as we look at Las Meninas is not Mazo’s paintings nor of course Rubens’s nor Jordaens’s, but Velázquez’s rendition of Mazo’s versions of two paintings by the Flemish masters.

Why is the Cross of Santiago controversial and why was it important for Velázquez?
Velázquez’s self-portrait has long drawn considerable attention related to the traditional dating of the painting’s composition –1656—and the presence of the red cross of the Order of Santiago on his chest.

Velázquez had always been ambitious for social status (that’s why he left Seville for Madrid in 1623) and his years in court, his proximity to the throne, and his role in the royal household only served to whet his appetite for official recognition for himself and his art. His goal was to be seen as a gentleman artist and a man of status.

That he had achieved this honour to his satisfaction might be perceived in two ways in Las Meninas: 1. He is seen prominently in the painting as being very much part of the royal court, and furthermore honoured by the attendance of King Philip and Queen Mariana themselves in his studio. The presence of the monarchs was an affirmation of the importance of his role as artist and an argument in favour –by royal association— of the nobility of painting, a significant matter at a time when painting in Spain was still considered a manual/ mechanical and menial craft or trade unworthy of nobility. 2. Prominent on Velázquez’s tunic is the red Cross of the Order of Santiago*, Spain’s most prestigious emblem of knighthood and a supreme sign of noble status that Velázquez had pursued since his arrival in Madrid.

[*The Order of Santiago was Spain’s most prestigious military religious Company/Organization, and membership required all applicants to provide proof of unblemished lineage and to demonstrate, in the case of artists, that painting for them was a liberal or gentlemanly pursuit with no expectation of payment.]

That ambition finally came to fruition when –after an initial rejection– he was made knight of the Order on November 28, 1659. It was a reward that owed much to the king’s determined support, the backing of several of his colleagues in the art world and a special papal dispensation.

So, where’s the controversy? Simply put, if Las Meninas is dated 1656, how is it that Velázquez’s tunic in the painting bears the red cross of Santiago when he didn’t receive his knighthood until November 1659? How could the painting show Velázquez wearing the cross three years before he had received his knighthood? Even Velázquez –distinguished as he was and highly favoured by the king– would hardly have been bold enough to display the cross of the Order on his tunic when he had not even been nominated for knighthood (which the king did on June 6, 1658)!

One solution to this conundrum –and perhaps the simplest– is that Velázquez added the cross after receiving the honour. Another, according to Palomino, is that the king ordered it to be added after Velázquez’s death. Yet another –anecdotal and unlikely, and also from Palomino — has been to attribute the painting of the cross to the king –himself an art aficionado— done a few years after Velázquez’s death and as a sign of his esteem for the artist.

Was Las Meninas painted in 1659-60?
In a series of six lectures given at the Prado Museum in 2012, the eminent art critic and Velázquez scholar, Jonathan Brown, proposed that the work was painted following Velázquez’s investiture on November 28, 1659 and intended as a “thank you gift” for the king for his support. This meant that Velázquez would have painted Las Meninas in just four months, shortly before setting out north to the Spanish-French border on April 8, 1660 where the older Spanish infanta, María Teresa (1638-83) was to marry Louis XIV of France. Clearly, he had no time for painting during this period of travel nor between the short time after his return to Madrid (June 26) and his death on August 6. It would have to have been painted between December 1659 and the beginning of April 1660, a mere four months. Brown argues that Velázquez could indeed paint rapidly if needed.

However, an argument adduced in favour of the 1656 date is that the Infanta Margarita looks very much a young child of 5 years old which conforms with her year of birth (1651). Furthermore, there is a portrait of the infanta done in 1656 in which she not only looks very much like the child in Las Meninas but the dress she wears is identical in both works. For the 1659-60 date, we would expect to see a more mature looking child, as in for example, the Infanta Margarita in a Blue Dress, 1659.

The argument in favour of the 1659-60 date rests largely on an analysis by conservationists that does not show different layers of paint around the cross, which would be expected if that area had been retouched to add the cross. This suggests that the cross was in the painting from the beginning.

Brown further argues –along with others– that Las Meninas is not a portrait of the royal family drawn from real life, but a product of Velázquez’s imagination, bringing together individual sketches to form a coherent whole, centred around the Infanta. In which case, the composition of the painting need not be tied to 1656.

Much then depends on whether we accept that Velázquez completed this complex piece of art in a relatively short period or whether Velázquez might have retouched the painting with such expertise that conservationists have been unable to detect the touch up. The controversy is not settled although, despite Brown’s eminence as a Velázquez expert, the consensus at the moment remains that Las Meninas was painted in 1656.

Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Brown, Jonathan Picasso and the Spanish Tradition 1996
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016
Jacobs, Michael Mythological Painting  New York 1979.
López-Rey, José   Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Velázquez: Las Meninas
Velázquez: Infanta Margarita in Blue Dress 1659 pAHSoRgE1VSx2w at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Velázquez. Las Hilanderas or The Fable of Arachne.

Velázquez. Las Hilanderas or The Fable of Arachne.
Las Hilanderas (1655-60) is one of Velázquez’s last paintings and one of his most complex. For long it was viewed primarily as a genre painting depicting women at work in the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa Isabel in Madrid.

Velazquez. Las Hilanderas or the Fable of Arachne. 1655-60.

The genre interpretation changed in 1948 to a reading based on the myth of Minerva (sometimes known by her Greek name Pallas or Pallas Athena) and Arachne following the research of Diego Angulo, art historian and Director of the Prado Museum (from 1968-70). Of course, the painting retained its generic attribute in that it represented realistically what a tapestry workshop must have looked like in the 17th century and, as such, is a useful historical record. But with Angulo’s contribution, the painting acquired added depth.

The Mythical Background.
Las hilanderas is Velázquez’s rendition of an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book 6, lines 1-145) which describes a contest between Minerva –goddess of the arts (including weaving, spinning etc.) and of war– and her human rival Arachne.

Briefly, Arachne, a young woman of very humble background, prided herself on her artistry as weaver/spinner and embroiderer. So skilled was she that the nymphs would leave their groves and fountains to watch her.  It was enough to make one believe that Minerva herself had taught her.  Offended, Arachne indignantly denied that she owed Minerva any debt, and challenged the goddess to a contest, adding that if she lost, she would pay the penalty.

Such pride annoyed Minerva, who then disguised herself as an old woman and appeared before Arachne to give her some friendly advice: to be satisfied with being recognized as the best human weaver but to accept that she could not compete with Minerva and beg forgiveness for her presumption. Arachne reacted unwisely, insulting the disguised goddess, reaffirming her challenge and foolishly suggesting Minerva was cowardly in not responding to the challenge. This prompted Minerva to drop her disguise, but while the nymphs paid proper homage, Arachne maintained her arrogant attitude. At which point, Minerva accepted the challenge and the contest began.

It is this moment, the beginning of the contest, that Velázquez captures in the foreground of his painting. Ovid’s text goes on to describe the themes chosen by Minerva and Arachne. The former wove pictures of twelve of the most powerful gods and in each corner of the tapestry examples of the punishment suffered by mortals who dared challenge them. Arachne, still defiant, depicted the failings of several gods and the deceit they practiced in their lustful pursuit of women.

Arachne’s artistry was indeed so flawless that Minerva, envious and angry, tore up Arachne’s picture and struck her on the head with her shuttle/ spindle. With her pride offended, Arachne hanged herself, but Minerva intervened converting Arachne into a spider and condemning her and her descendants to weave their webs forever.

The Painting.
The painting is dominated by a detailed and realistic rendition of a 17th-century tapestry workshop in the foreground, although chronologically the contest would have taken place in classical times (obviously before Ovid wrote). The workshop is where Minerva and Arachne, assisted by three other young women, are engaged in their preparations prior to embroidering their tapestries. It is an animated scene with none of the women apparently aware of or interested in the adjoining alcove.

Minerva is at the spinning wheel to the left and Arachne is winding yarn to the right. A cat lies on the floor amidst bits of wool, heaps of fabric can be seen behind the girl to the left and piles of fleece hang on the wall to the right. The intensity of the contest is brilliantly captured by Velázquez’s innovative depiction of motion: the spokes of Minerva’s wheel are a blur demonstrating the speed with which the goddess is spinning and the outlines of Arachne’s fingers are indistinct as she deftly winds the yarn.

In the adjoining alcove in the background, there are three ladies elegantly dressed in fashionable 17th-century costumes. What are they doing there? Is the alcove a kind of showroom for the factory? The lady to the right looks directly into the workshop, as if something there has caught her attention. The other two are watching two figures standing directly in front of a large “tapestry.” These latter seem out of place in the presence of the three ladies. One — wearing a breastplate and helmet—is Minerva who, from her raised arm, appears to be lecturing the other, Arachne, dressed much like the women in the workshop.  Arachne’s pose –with outstretched arm– suggests she is rejecting Minerva’s reprimand, which would be entirely in keeping with her attitude to the goddess all along.

Lining the back of the showroom is a large “tapestry” depicting the rape of Europa by Jupiter in the guise of a bull. It is of course not a real tapestry but a rough painting by Velázquez in imitation of a painting The Rape of Europa by either Titian (a favourite of Philip II) or Rubens (a favourite of Philip IV). Rubens’s version –bearing the same title– was in fact a very close copy of Titian’s. Both artists were greatly admired by Velázquez and both paintings formed part of the royal collection to which Velázquez would have access (the Titian is now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Rubens is in the Prado Museum, Madrid.)

What does it all mean?
That Las Hilanderas is indeed inspired by Ovid’s tale is now widely accepted, but what Velázquez was trying to get across has generated many interpretations, ranging widely from the dangers of presumption (Arachne’s challenge to the gods) and vanity (Minerva) to the argument that the painting shows art to be a noble pursuit.

Structurally, Las Hilanderas, is organized on two clearly divided levels: the workshop activity of the hilanderas in the foreground and the smaller illuminated alcove scene beyond it, which might be viewed as signalling the painting’s alternate name The Fable of Arachne. The composition of a painting within a painting or a scene within a scene each having a bearing on the other was not new to Velázquez. As early as his Seville days, he played with this kind of configuration/ technique, as for example, in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary 1618. In Las Hilanderas, the two scenes are linked 1. By the steps leading directly from the workshop into the alcove, 2. by Minerva and Arachne seen at different moments of the contest: before and after the embroidery of the “tapestry,” and 3. by the lady to the right whose outward gaze towards the workshop not only redirects us to the workshop but also pulls us into the frame in such a way that we too are made to feel that we are in the workshop.

But what is the “tapestry” all about? Although in the “back” of the painting, it is in fact in the centre of the canvas and slightly elevated. Our gaze is drawn to it by Velázquez’s clever manipulation of perspective: our eyes move from where we “stand” in the workshop progressively through the narrow archway leading to the alcove and directly to the tapestry whose very size and illuminated location demand our attention.

We know from the subject matter that it portrays the rape of Europa by Jupiter and is a copy of the same topic (with the same title” The Rape of Europa) painted by both Titian and Rubens (see above). By doing this, Velázquez was paying homage to two of his favourite painters and both esteemed by Philip II and Philip IV respectively.

From Ovid, we know that the rape of Europa was one of several scenes depicted by Arachne in the poem. Arachne’s choice of that episode for her tapestry would not have gone down well with Minerva since it portrays Jupiter, Minerva’s father, in a poor light. Where she, Minerva, had depicted the power and greatness of the gods, including Jupiter’s proud and majestic demeanour, Arachne shows them in a negative light as seducers and cheats. From Ovid’s description, Jupiter would now qualify as a serial seducer and rapist given the number of his victims, with Europa being the first victim in Ovid’s list.

Minerva’s violent reaction, then, is born of resentment and envy at the artistry of Arachne’s work and likely too from her anger or humiliation at the public display of her father’s deplorable behaviour. In the painting, where she is dressed for battle (among her attributes, she was the goddess of war), she may not be simply reprimanding Arachne (see suggestion above) but possibly preparing to strike Arachne (indeed, in the poem Minerva does hit Arachne).

What do we make of all this? It is not merely a genre picture, but takes advantage of that genre to show us that the world of the mythical, classical gods is no different from the world of mortals. Minerva looks very much like the other women in the workshop. Furthermore, the demythification of the classical world reveals the universality of the situations in which the gods found themselves. Minerva’s pride allows her to be trapped by Arachne into a contest, her anger leads her to strike her challenger and her decision to transform Arachne into a spider suggests a vindictive and unforgiving spirit against a rival who has no supernatural powers. But neither is Arachne blameless … she is proud, boastful and rude. However, she is human and her role, in many ways, is to humanize Minerva showing the goddess (and by extension the gods) to be in fact no different from mortals.

Unlike the Italian masters’ concept of mythology as heroic and mythological figures tended to be represented on a grand scale, Velázquez viewed that world and those figures as innate in everyday reality. 

The three elegant ladies in the alcove are something of a mystery. It has been suggested that they represent the nymphs who used to come and watch Arachne at work, or they are symbols of the fine arts (music, sculpture, painting). It has been argued that their elegance vis a vis the women in the workshop implies that the fine arts are superior to the handicraft carried out in the workshop. 

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, the meaning –if indeed Velázquez intended there to be a meaning– of Las Hilanderas eludes us. It is a carefully crafted piece of art, displaying Velázquez’s skill and artistry. By giving prominence to the mundane world of the workshop, was he doing no more than demonstrating the interrelationship of all creative artistic endeavours? That the humble tasks of the women in the workshop could lead to or were the base of the elegance and finished product in the alcove. One was not possible without the other. The workers are treated with the same respect that Velázquez famously showed towards the marginalised in his Seville and bodegón paintings or the dwarfs in the royal household. Velázquez may have relentlessly pursued the status of nobility, but he was not so cocooned in court life that he did not recognise the value of those who laboured in the Royal Tapestry Factory of Santa Isabel. He may have paid homage to Titian and Rubens, but Las Hilanderas may also have been a recognition of those at the beginning of the creative process.

The painting was partially damaged by the fire of 1734 that destroyed the Alcazar in which it was housed. Later a wide strip (with the arch) was added to the top, along with narrower ones on the left and right. The effect is to increase the sense of depth.

Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016
Jacobs, Michael Mythological Painting  New York 1979.
López-Rey, José   Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Titian –, Public Domain,
Rubens :

Velázquez. Mythology. Bacchus. Vulcan. Mars. Mercury.

Velázquez. Mythology. Bacchus. Vulcan. Mars. Mercury.
Velázquez completed nine paintings inspired by Classical mythology. The first, Los borrachos aka Bacchus or The Feast of Bacchus (1628-29), was completed just before he undertook his first trip to Italy (1629-31). It was followed shortly after by his second mythological work, The Forge of Vulcan (1630) done in Rome.

The remaining seven were painted between 1638 and 1659: Mars (c. 1638), The Rokeby Venus (1644-48), Las hilanderas aka Fable of Arachne (c. 1656-58), and finally a series of four works he painted for the Hall of Mirrors in Madrid´s Alcázar Palace. Of these only one has survived: Mercury and Argus (1659). The others, Apollo slaying a Satyr, Venus and Adonis and Psyche and Cupid were lost when the Alcázar burned in 1734.

Los borrachos. 1628-29.

Los borrachos. 1628-29.

Behind the picture is Velázquez’s interpretation of how Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, introduced the drink to mortals. The painting shows a mainly nude Bacchus seated on a barrel, his head covered with vine leaves. He appears somewhat distracted, looking away as he bestows a crown of leaves on the head of the youthful individual kneeling before him. The young man is reasonably dressed; from his sword and boots he appears to be a soldier.

Behind Bacchus, a semi-nude acolyte/ devotee (a satyr, according to some scholars) leans nonchalantly to get a better view of the proceedings. In his left hand, he holds up a crystal glass of wine. A bulky figure to the bottom left of the canvas, wearing a shapeless, earthy-brown smock and with his head also crowned with leaves, lends an air of mystery. A sketchily outlined figure, he is hunched over at the edge of the group and appears out of place on Bacchus’s side of the picture. As a structural feature of the painting, however, he does serve as a counterfoil to the equally sketchily drawn beggar in the upper right-hand corner of the canvas.

The painting is clearly divided into virtually equal halves, the left dominated by Bacchus and his follower, the right by a group of individuals drawn from the margins of society, perhaps ruffians, street beggars, perhaps country peasants. It is an animated, irreverent scene in which the contrast between the two halves could hardly be clearer. The portrayal of Bacchus and his attendant reflects something of the traditional, Renaissance depiction with youthful, idealized faces and unblemished bodies. On the other side, the sunburnt, leathery, bearded and mustached faces, the expectant smiles and grins of those awaiting Bacchus’s gift launch us into the real world of the marginalized in 17th-century Spain. Two of the eager tipplers look out directly at us, as if inviting us to join an eagerly anticipated drink-up.

According to one interpretation, Bacchus, by bestowing on humans the gift of wine, was seen as a liberator, freeing them from the toils of daily life and cheering them up.

It has even been suggested that the composition of a man kneeling before a god who blesses him and prepares him for wine alludes to the Christian mass (communion). This is unlikely. It would leave Velázquez open to blasphemy, a matter which the Inquisition –well versed in heretical allusions– would have been quick to condemn.

It has also been argued that the beggar in the upper right-hand corner is a reminder of the reality of Spain’s social, economic and political decline behind the apparent festivity, a matter that was widely discussed in the 17th century by arbitristas (social and economic commentators).

In Los borrachos we have the presence of the two worlds –Renaissance idealization and Baroque realism— side by side. Put another way, they are examples of the Aristotelian division of poetry and history, much discussed at the turn of the 17th century. Poetry dealt with the elevated world of deities or supernatural beings in which the world was painted as it might be, a fiction, an invented world rather than the real world. History on the other hand, dealt with the particular, with the concerns of everyday life, e.g. hunger, shelter, illness, money. It is the world of here and now, of ordinary people making their way through life. Wine is the common factor bringing both worlds together.

Back in the 18th century, the painter and art critic Antonio Palomino (1655-1726) called the painting “The Triumph of Bacchus in Burlesque.” Nevertheless, despite Palomino’s title, Los borrachos is less a burlesque than it is Velázquez’s irreverent take on how wine entered the world of mortals. It’s a festive occasion, although Bacchus’s gaze away at the crowning moment suggests his heart is not entirely in it, as if –at this crucial instant— he is having second thoughts about whether he is doing the right thing!!

The Forge of Vulcan. 1630.

Velazquez. The Forge of Vulcan. 1630

The painting is based on a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the Roman sun god, Apollo, informs Vulcan –the god of fire and metalwork— that he has seen Vulcan’s wife, Venus, in an affair with Mars, god of war. The setting is Vulcan’s forge, with three quarters of the canvas recording Vulcan’s reaction of shock and his workers’ astonishment. The remaining quarter portrays Apollo, whose baby face and admonishing finger “make him seem more a schoolboy tattletale than a powerful sun god” (Brown, D. 72b). His idealistic depiction –boyish body partially wrapped in a crimson robe, and crowned head outlined by the sun’s halo—contrasts with the weathered, muscular bodies of Vulcan and his workers.

Scattered, too, are Vulcan’s tools of trade (e. g. anvil, hammers) pieces of armour, even an elegant white vase/jug perched on the mantel above the furnace/forge. Together, they constitute minor studies of still-life.

Unlike the drinkers in Los borrachos, who are humans gathered from low society, Vulcan and his half-clothed workers are gods or demi-gods, but now humanized as real people. They belong to the world of myth, but they are shown to be down to earth, human beings, perhaps labourers from Velázquez’s bodegón world. Like Bacchus and his follower in Los borrachos, Apollo is given an idealized, poetic veneer, but Vulcan and his workers differ from the drinkers in Los borrachos in their god-like status, but now fully absorbed in the world of history.

Demythification, or the bringing down to earth with comic or irreverent treatment of the ancients was a feature of Baroque culture. Spain –with its long history of realistic literary representation going back to the Poema de mío Cid, El Libro de buen amor, La Celestina and Lazarillo de Tormes— was well equipped to adapt realism as an antidote to Renaissance idealization of classical mythology. The satirical poems of Francisco de Quevedo (e. g. Bermejazo platero de las cumbres: Read-headed silversmith of the mountain tops) come immediately to mind, perhaps because a well-known portrait of a bespectacled Quevedo has been attributed to Velázquez. [Even the parody of romances of chivalry as seen in Don Quixote belongs to the same cultural process of demythification.]

Mars (c.1638).

Mars c.1638

If the Forge of Vulcan centres on the shocked reaction of Vulcan and his workers at the news of Venus’s adulterous affair with Mars, it is tempting to see Velázquez’s painting Mars (c. 1638) as depicting the powerful god of war’s state after having been caught “in the act.” Naked to the waist, he is seated on a bed whose rumpled, richly coloured coverings are draped around his loins. His shield and armour lie at his feet. On his head, he wears an unstrapped helmet while a huge walrus moustache covers much of his face. Together, the helmet and moustache leave this militant god looking a comical figure. Mars disarmed and sporting such a moustache?

With his chin resting on his left hand, Mars looks pensive and distracted. What is he thinking about? Is he resting after a mighty battle? No. There is simply nothing heroic about Mars here. Perhaps a wider context will make more sense of all this. While engaged in their love-making, Mars and Venus were trapped in a fine metal web woven by Vulcan and then subjected to the taunts by the gods from Olympus who had been invited to the scene.

Could not Mars, then, be mulling over the embarrassing event? The bed and its rich coverings and his nakedness suggest that the event has only just passed. Vulcan and his workers may be shocked by the news brought by Apollo, but Mars has been humiliated, an idea comically and very effectively conveyed by the helmet, the moustache and the tired pose. It is tempting the think that Mars is asking himself whether the adultery was worth it!

Whatever the case, the whole depiction is indicative of the irreverent treatment that the gods were often subjected to in the Baroque period. Mars is no idealized Renaissance god but very much a human being, subject to the same sentiments as humans.

Mercury and Argus (1659).

Mercury and Argus. 1659.

Based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (I, 583; IX, 687), Velázquez’s last surviving mythological painting, Mercury and Argus is the Roman variation of the Greek legend of Zeus, Hera, Io, Hermes and Argus. In the Roman version, the equivalents are Jupiter, Juno, Io, Mercury and Argus.

The painting depicts the moment when the winged god, Mercury steals up on Argus who has been engaged by Juno to protect Io from further advances by her husband, Jupiter. Fearing that Juno would uncover his adultery with Io, Jupiter transformed Io into a cow/ heifer. However, Juno, suspecting that Jupiter had been unfaithful asked him for the cow as a gift, a request he could hardly refuse. Juno then placed the cow under the care of the hundred-eyed Argus. Not to be outdone, Jupiter sent his son, Mercury, who lulled Argus to sleep with his pan pipes before beheading him.

Velázquez has captured the dramatic moment when Mercury –identified by his winged hat—crawls towards the sleeping Argus. In his right hand, he carries his unsheathed sword. Outlined behind him is the cow (Io) that Argus is charged with protecting.

Rubens. Mercury and Venus 1636-38.

Velázquez has concentrated on Mercury and Argus leaving the background –traditionally a landscape—deliberately vague. The two have undergone a transformation similar to that of Vulcan and his workers and Mars, namely they look very much like 17th-century men in their realistic depiction. Curiously, Mercury’s hat looks much like a modern fedora, the kind which Velázquez might have seen in Ruben’s version of the theme painted between 1636-38 for the Torre de la Parada in Madrid. 

The humanization of these mythological figures obeyed several factors. It reflected a natural reaction to Renaissance idealization and a growing skepticism or uncertainty regarding accepted truths or ways of seeing things. Knowledge, transmitted through sight, was questioned and increasingly sight gave way to the need to touch things to approach truth.  For example, Don Quixote (in Don Quixote, Part II, chptr. 11) makes the point –following his disappointment at seeing his beloved Dulcinea converted into a garlic-smelling village wench (chptr. X), and then finding out that a group of people dressed strangely was no more than a troupe of actors– that it is necessary to touch appearances in order not to be deceived.

Whether they were meant to have a didactic purpose or not, the stories attached to the paintings pointed to human foibles and weaknesses etc. that are not limited by time or place. They had as much relevance in the 17th century and indeed nowadays as in Greek or Roman times. Vanity (Venus in The Rokeby Venus), the implied joy from drinking wine, anger, adultery, revenge, embarrassment, jealousy, murder, revenge, they all reflect human sentiments.

In other words, the world of the ancients had relevance in the 17th century, and dressing the gods up in contemporary clothes was a way of conveying the universality of their tales. In a way, the relevance of these classical tales runs parallel to another contemporary development in art, that of making tales from the Bible relevant and more believable to the faithful by dressing biblical characters realistically in 17th-century clothes.

Of course, the Church had a specific didactic message and emphasized the goodness or suffering of the saints or holy figures as guides meant to move the faithful. The message or messages contained in secular art based on classical mythology could be deduced from the tales, although often the messages could be lost in the depiction itself, especially in canvases where nudes were prominent. Sensuality could easily surpass the moral behind the tales.

Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016
López-Rey, José   Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Los borrachos:
Forge of Vulcan:
Mercury and Argus:
Rubens. Mercury and Venus:

Velázquez and Classical Mythology. The Rokeby Venus.

Velázquez and Classical Mythology. The Rokeby Venus.
By and large, Spanish painters of the Golden Age (approx. 1500-1680) were not drawn to classical mythological topics, although there was –paradoxically– no shortage of mythological works in the country owing to the large collections owned by many wealthy Spaniards (notably the royal collection). However, these paintings were almost exclusively made by Italian artists whose prestige made them acceptable to the affluent purchasers. A notable exception was the Flemish artist and diplomat, Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), a favourite of Philip IV.

Native Spanish painters, then, faced formidable competition from their European rivals/ contemporaries.  In addition, mythology frequently encompassed male and female nudity and opposition by a very conservative Spanish Catholic was undoubtedly a formidable deterrent, not to mention the activities of the Spanish Inquisition, always awake to the possibility of heresy. As a result, there was limited scope for native Spanish painters, apart from portraits and –later—still life. 

It was only in the 17th century that Spanish painters started very cautiously to incorporate mythological themes into their art but female nudity was still very rare, although the royal collection contained plenty of erotic images of naked women by Titian (e. g. his series Poesie, painted for Philip II) and Rubens.

The Rokeby Venus.
Nevertheless, one of the most voluptuous female nudes in all of art is Velázquez ’s mythological Venus and Cupid (1644-48) also known as the Toilet of Venus, Venus at her Mirror, and The Rokeby Venus (after the name of the country house in Yorkshire, England where it hung from 1813 to 1906 when it passed to the National Gallery, London, where it still hangs). It was Velázquez ’s only female nude, and probably tolerated 1. because of Velázquez ’s esteemed status at court; 2. it was intended for a private collection (the aristocratic womanizer, the Marquis of Carpio, Gaspar Méndez de Haro); 3. it was possibly painted in Rome, a more liberal city than Madrid (the general consensus is against this); and 4. she is seen only from behind; this was daring enough, and a full frontal female nude would have been especially audacious in conservative Spain, even for Velázquez .

Although there were plenty examples of frontal female Venuses emanating from Italy, Velázquez ’s Venus is one of the most captivatingly alluring/seductive. Compare, for example, Titian’s, Venus and Cupid with an Organist or Venus and Music (1545-48. This is the second of two versions at the Prado Museum in Madrid.), where there is a strong element of lust or blatant sexuality as the organist stares boldly at Venus’s genitalia.

The languid, suggestive pose of Velázquez ’s Venus, her white body –with hips and bottom resting prominently in the foreground on a satiny dark bedsheet– and the velvety red background drapery make for a sensual, erotically charged picture. Only the nude and boyish Cupid -holding the mirror—witnesses this intimate moment of self-absorption as Venus gazes at herself in the mirror.

Nevertheless, looked at closely, the face reflected in the mirror is a disappointment: Venus seems very plain. Her lips are somewhat thick, her nose somewhat broad, and her eyebrows rather heavy/bushy. Her hair, too, appears less well combed compared with the view from the back, with some whisps hanging from the side. In other words, the face does not live up to what is suggested by her voluptuous outline from the back. The immediacy of the body with its sensual curves lead us to suppose a beautiful woman, but the plainness reflected in the mirror suggests, otherwise.

From this perspective, the picture is a visual rendering of a favourite topic of the Baroque: the deceptiveness of appearances which leads to disillusion and also, in this case, the demythification of classical mythological figure. Venus, the goddess of Love and personification of female beauty, is not so beautiful after all. She is just an ordinary looking, young brunette, a mortal rather than the golden-haired goddess favoured by Renaissance artists.

Velázquez  never used mirrors (or mirror equivalents, e. g. a painting within a painting, as for example Christ in the House of Martha and Mary) for mere decoration. They provided a door suggesting a deeper meaning for the main or foreground subjects. In this case, the mirror disillusions us offering a true reflection of a rather plain young woman whose curvaceous back misleads us into assuming she is altogether beautiful. It has also been noted that Venus’s face seems much older compared to the body; this has been interpreted as a warning about the ephemerality of beauty, that nothing lasts forever.

Others, however, suggest that Venus’s self-absorption with her beauty is an allegory of Spain’s strutting self-satisfaction with its role in Europe (in which case the plain face in the mirror might be interpreted as the real “face” of the country).

Or possibly that Velázquez is playing with the idea of the viewers’ position vis a vis Venus, creating the illusion that we are privileged witnesses of her beauty. We see the back of Venus, but she can also see us behind her via the mirror. We are, then, drawn into an intimate moment in a way similar to the illusion created in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Velázquez creates the illusion that we share the same space/ are in the same room as Venus at the same time that we observe what’s going on from our vantage outside the painting. That is, we are both inside and outside the painting.  

The painting’s history contains an interesting social anecdote. On March 10, 1914, it suffered several slashes with a meat cleaver by a suffragette, Canadian-born Mary Richardson, as it hung in the National Gallery. Richardson, who later became a follower of the fascist Oswald Mosley, objected to the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst. Labeled “Slasher Mary” by the press, her justification for destroying the painting was an attempt to balance what she considered the Government’s destruction of Emmeline Pankhurst: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.” In a later interview, she gave a reason that might be more in line with modern day feminists: “I didn’t like the way men visitors to the gallery gaped at it all day.” 

The Rokeby Venus (1644-48) is one of nine works Velázquez painted dealing with mythological figures and differs considerably from the others in that it is the only female nude. The others are: Los borrachos aka Bacchus or The Feast of Bacchus (1628-29), completed just before he undertook his first trip to Italy (1629-31). It was followed shortly after by his second mythological work, The Forge of Vulcan (1630) done in Rome. The remaining 7 were painted between 1638 and 1659: Mars (c. 1638), Las hilanderas aka Fable of Arachne (c. 1656-58),  and finally a series of 4 works he painted for the Hall of Mirrors in Madrid´s Alcázar Palace. Of these only one has survived: Mercury and Argus (1659). The others, Apollo slaying a Satyr, Venus and Adonis and Psyche and Cupid were lost when the Alcázar burned in 1734.

Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016
López-Rey, José   Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
The Rokeby Venus:!HalfHD.jpg 
Titian: Venus and Music: 
For a good description of the wider context for the attempted destruction of the Rokeby Venus, see 

Velázquez. Madrid. Italy. Madrid.1631-60.

Velázquez. Madrid. Italy. 1631-60.
[This post follows on Velázquez: From Seville to Madrid (The Court) 1623-31.] After a fruitful first trip to Italy, Velázquez was back in Madrid in January 1631 at the time plans were being made to build the pleasure palace of the Buen Retiro. Its construction, thought up by Olivares, had two objectives: 1. to distract the King and allow Olivares a freer hand in running the country, and 2. impress foreign dignitaries –through its lavish display of abundance and grandiosity– that Spain was still a great power to be reckoned with despite its political and economic woes.

Predictably, the large complex –surrounded by gardens with numerous fountains and dotted with hermitage chapels— called for a vast array of decorations, paintings, sculptures and tapestries. The Great Hall of Realms (Salón de Reinos) was the centrepiece, the ceremonial room intended to emphasise and glorify the power of the monarchy.

St. Anthony and St. Paul the Hermit 1633/4.
Surrender of Breda. 1634-35.

Among Velázquez’s contributions to the Great Hall were the Surrender of Breda (1634-35) and equestrian portraits of Philip IV and the young prince, Baltasar Carlos, heir to the throne. Still, his first painting for the Retiro was located in the hermitage chapel of San Pablo in the palace grounds. This was St. Anthony and St. Paul the Hermit 1633/4, a canvas dominated by a striking landscape whose precipitous cliff towers over the two saints.


For the next several years, Velázquez not only established himself as the Spanish court’s most eminent artist but had also ascended the social ladder in Madrid. He continued to enjoy a close relationship with Philip who in January 1643 promoted him to ayuda de cámara (Gentleman of the Bedchamber).  In June that year, he was named Assistant Superintendent of Works, which involved him in collaborating with the king in planning the decoration of rooms at the remodeled Alcázar in Madrid.

Despite his consultative and organizational duties, the years between 1631 and 1648 –when he undertook his second trip to Italy– were Velázquez’s most productive period. Besides painting some of his best-known canvases of the royal family and the nobility, he also found time to paint dwarfs, buffoons, classical figures, a superb rendition of Christ on the Cross and a magnificent interpretation of the aftermath of war in his Surrender of Breda c. 1635. According to the calculations of the Velázquez scholar, López-Rey, Velázquez completed 60 canvases during these 17 years. The following are a small selection divided into thematic groups for easy reference. All are in the Prado Museum in Madrid:

Royalty: Philip IV in Hunting Dress 1632-4; Philip IV on Horseback c. 1635; Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback c. 1635; Queen Isabel on Horseback 1634-35. [Aristocracy: Count-Duke of Olivares on Horseback 1634.]

Religion: Given his duties as court painter requiring him to paint the royal family and nobility with portraits and pictures to decorate their palaces, Velázquez produced few religious pieces during this period. Some scholars have speculated that he was not in any case overly religious and he evidently found time for several other, non-religious, works, e. g. buffoons and dwarfs and classical or mythological topics. López-Rey lists only three religious works, the moving Crucified Christ c. 1632 (which may owe something to a strikingly similar painting by his fellow Sevillian artist and acquaintance, Francisco de Zurbarán, painted in 1627), St. Anthony and St. Paul… (above) 1633-34, and The Coronation of the Virgin c. 1645.

Buffoons and Dwarfs:
It might be surprising that a court artist who enjoyed a very close relationship with his King would deign to paint buffoons/ jesters and dwarfs, even if they did frequent the royal halls. They were marginal figures meant to amuse the court at a time when people with disabilities were viewed as curiosities. Velázquez, however, had already shown an interest in marginal figures in his bodegones, and had treated them with dignity and respect. He extended the same courtesy to the court jesters and dwarfs portraying them with warmth and understanding and endowing each with individual qualities. The individuals shown below are: Buffoon Don Juan Martín Martín or Calabacillas (painted 1637-39);
Francisco Lezcano: The Boy from Vallecas 1643-45;  Buffoon Don Sebastián de Morra: El Primo c.1645. [The dating of these works varies somewhat. We have followed the dates suggested by López-Rey.]

Classical/ Mythological Paintings:
Two well-known works of mythological inspiration had been painted by Velázquez prior to 1631. The first, Los borrachos is dated 1628-29, the second The Forge of Vulcan (1630) was done during Velázquez’s first visit to Italy. Velázquez did not attempt another mythological work of a large scale until he produced Las Hilanderas (The Fable of Arachne) in 1656-58.

In between, there are three “portraits” of classical inspiration all produced around 1638: two philosophers: Aesop and Menippus, and the Roman god Mars. Both philosophers are notable for their down-to-earth appearance. Aesop looks a rough and ready character in keeping perhaps with his alleged birth as a slave. Menippus, with his sharp eyes and nose, his body encased in a long cloak, and a slight smile playing on his lips, could well pass for a pícaro, the cynical literary anti-hero in vogue at the time. Mars was the Roman god of war, but here –sitting largely disrobed on the edge of his bed, his torso a mite flabby, and his shield and armour at his feet—he looks anything but warlike. In fact, he looks pensive and chagrined, perhaps the result of having just been discovered having sex with Venus, Vulcan’s wife. A walrus moustache is the clinching comic element in demythifying this militant god. Does any classical god sport such a moustache?

Velázquez’s second trip to Italy 1648-51.

Innocent X 1650

In late November 1648, Velázquez again returned to Italy, this time not with the aim of immersing himself in the works of the great Italian masters but as collector of paintings and sculptures for Philip IV. This time, too, Velázquez was himself an acknowledged artist whose reputation was recognized in Rome when he was admitted to the painters’ guild at the Academy of St. Luke in January 1650 and a short time later by the confederation of painters called the Virtuosi al Pantheon.

While in Rome, Velázquez painted some half dozen portraits, the best known being a remarkable portrait of Pope Innocent X Innocent X (1649-50). [Velázquez took the opportunity to solicit Innocent’s support in his bid to be elected to an order of knighthood, a long-standing ambition of his. His request was received favourably.] Also painted his assistant (Brown D 144), Juan de Pareja, who accompanied him to Italy.

Return to Madrid 1651. (1651-1660).
Urged to return by Philip, Velázquez arrived in Madrid in June 1651. In February 1652, he was promoted to aposentador de palacio (Chamberlain of the Royal Palace). It was a personal decision by Philip who overrode the choice of a council struck to recommend the next holder of the office. It was a very coveted post, but along with its privileges came responsibilities which left Velázquez with relatively little time for painting.

Lopez-Rey records only fourteen paintings in the eight years between Velázquez’s return from Italy and his death on August 6, 1600. Ten were portraits of the king, the queen and of the royal princesses. The remaining four included one mythological work, one religious painting and Velázquez’s two great masterpieces, Las Hilanderas 1656-58 (The Fable of Arachne) and Las Meninas 1656-58 (The Ladies in Waiting).

Las Hilanderas. 1656-58
Las Meninas. 1656-57.

Velázquez’s close relationship with the king and the prestigious positions he occupied no doubt helped him in his ambitious pursuit to be recognized as a member of the nobility. In June 1658, Philip nominated Velázquez for a knighthood in the prestigious Order of Santiago. There were however two serious obstacles: 1. to qualify for the knighthood, Velázquez had to provide proof of unblemished lineage, and 2. Painting was viewed as a menial occupation, and artists only qualified for membership of the Order if it was shown that they did not accept payment for their paintings. Fellow artists, e.g. Zurbarán, Alonso Cano testified that Velázquez painted only for his own pleasure and for the king. This was clearly stretching the truth, but it might have been enough to convince the Council of Orders charged with looking at Velázquez’s application. However, in the matter of his lineage doubt was cast over the noble status on his paternal grandmother’s side. As a result, in February 1659 the Council rejected Velázquez’s application. Nevertheless, with the King’s support and a papal dispensation (demanded by the Council) the rejection was overturned and Velázquez was finally admitted to the Order of Santiago on November 28, 1659.

During the deliberations over his knighthood application, Velázquez was heavily involved in preparations for the marriage of the Spanish infanta (princess), María Teresa to Louis XIV of France. The marriage was to seal a peace treaty –to be signed on the Isle of Pheasants**, close to the border just off Fuenterrabia– between Spain and France after a long and exhausting war. [**For those interested, there is an absorbing history of the Isle of Pheasants on the BBC post:]

As aposentador, Velázquez was charged with preparing accommodation for the royal party along the route north and with the decoration of the Spanish rooms of the pavilion where the meeting was to take place. Exhausting as all the preparations were, it must have pleased Velázquez to be able to display at such a formidable gathering the “gold chain from which hung the diamond-studded badge of the Order of Santiago” (Brown D. 174).

Velázquez returned to Madrid with the royal entourage, but confessed in a letter to a friend that he was “weary of traveling by night and working by day but in good health” (Brown D 175). It would appear, however, that all was not well with his health, since rumours had already circulated before his arrival in Madrid (on June 26) that he had died. At home, he took care of routine business matters, and on July 1 accompanied the King to a bullfight. At the end of the month, while attending the King he felt tired and feverish and retired to his apartment.

He died on August 6, 1660, having received the Last Sacrament. He was laid out in his bedroom clothed in the robes of the Order of Santiago, and buried the next day the Church of San Juan Bautista with many nobles and royal servants in attendance. A week later, his wife of forty-three years, Juana, also died and was buried alongside him. Unfortunately, nothing remains of the church or their burial place.

Brown, Dale The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.
Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Lopez-Rey, Jose   Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Tiffany, Tanya J.  Diego Velázquez’s Early Painting and the Culture of Seventeenth-century Seville  Pennsylvania 2012.
St. Anthony and St. Paul:
Surrender of Breda:
Philip IV in Hunting Dress: 
Philip IV on Horseback:
Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback:
Queen Isabel on Horseback:
Count-Duke of Olivares on Horseback:
Crucified Christ:
Buffoon Calabacillas:
Francisco Lezcano, The Boy from Vallecas:
Buffoon El Primo:
Innocent X:
Las Hilanderas:
Las Meninas: