Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656)

Velazquez's Las Meninas is one of the greatest pictures in the history of art and one of its greatest puzzles. It makes no sense reading it like a photograph but if Velazquez is a Realist painter, as some art historians still claim, it should. Velazquez stands at his easel in a large room with the Infanta and her attendants. However, since the king and queen are in the mirror on the far wall, they must be standing in our space in front of the picture, having just entered the room. That's why, as the conventional explanation goes, the Infanta looks up as though about to curtsy and why some of her attendants have not yet noticed the royal couple. If they had, they would be standing upright facing them. There is a problem, though, with that understanding: what is Velazquez painting? If the king and queen are in our space, he must be painting the monarchs though, as far as we know, he never portrayed them together. Nor could he be painting the Infanta who faces away from him. Besides the only picture he ever painted the size of the depicted canvas was Las Meninas itself. How, then, can we resolve the problem? There is a way if we think through Velazquez's own eyes.

Imagine the entire canvas as a mirror. Velazquez thus composed the painting as though the Infanta is preening in front of a giant looking-glass. She is not looking at her parents but has the look of a small girl eyeing her own reflection.1 Velazquez, meanwhile, behind the Infanta sees exactly what we see: Las Meninas. The painting is the mirror of his mind....and a magical construction.

A major perceptual issue still remains though: the king and queen. The scene suggests that they are standing where the artist's eye was when he was in front of the canvas painting the picture. They are images in his "eye", as any alchemist of the time might have recognized. Royalty, especially king and queen, are alchemical symbols of the creative mind in spiritual perfection, united androgynously, male and female.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Velazquez, Las Meninas (1656)

Click image to enlarge.

Since we are standing where Velazquez once was, we too think the king and queen are in our space as our own inner reflection. Velazquez thus signals to viewers who think like himself that they too can perfect and purify their souls because in our mind's eye or perhaps our heart - as in the apparent scene itself - are the king and queen waiting to be recognized. It is difficult to find that divine spark or speck of perfection in our own beings but some viewers by looking into their own minds will be able to gain self-knowledge and may one day find it. Velazquez, I believe, does not reject religion here but transposes religious ideas into alchemical terms, as hundreds of spiritual alchemists all over Europe were doing at the same time. The beauty of Velazquez's construction is that nothing is irrelevant: both the apparent scene in his studio and the underlying one in his mind are crucial to its meaning.

Paul Jay has demonstrated how the written masterpieces of St. Augustine, William Wordsworth, James Joyce and Marcel Proust, all autobiographical, are a form of self-analysis that helps the reader chart their own sub-conscious2. Dante did so too in the Commedia3. They each find divinity or a secular equivalent inside themselves and not up in heaven as orthodox churches argued to control their flocks. Hegel, too, believed that man's mind was the only medium through which the divine element could pass.4 My own experience interpreting paintings suggests that great visual art does likewise for a small number of viewers. Just as the creative process helps the artist grapple with his or her own psychic problems and sets them on the path to spiritual purity, so too can the resulting object guide like-minded observers with the imagination and aptitude for spiritual growth. There are not many such viewers - and I am definitely not one of them - but Las Meninas, however hermetic its full meaning, expresses that level clearly, concisely and beautifully.

Notes:

1. Remember that the princess, who looks outwards like Velazquez himself, must also be an alter ego of the artist, a symbol of his mind's purity, royal and innocent, the secular equivalent of the allegorical meaning of the Infant Christ.

2. Jay, Being in the Text: Self-Representation from Wordsworth to Roland Barthes(Ithaca: Cornell University Press) 1984, esp. pp.23-33

3. Bonney Gulino Schaub and Richard Schaub, Dante's Path: A Practical Approach to Achieving Inner Wisdom (New York: Gotham Books) 2003. 

4. Jay, pp.43-4

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