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: