Spanish Mecca

No, we’re not talking about the discotheque in the city of Aguilas that opened under the name of La Meca, amid protests from Muslim individuals and organisations, we’re talking about the Museo del Prado and Las Meninas, a 1656 painting by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age.


The Museo del Prado is the main Spanish national art museum, located in central Madrid. It features one of the world’s finest collections of European art, dating from the 12th century to the early 19th century, based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, and unquestionably the best single collection of Spanish art. Founded as a museum of paintings and sculpture in 1819, it also contains important collections of other types of works. The numerous works by Francisco de Goya, the single most extensively represented artist, as well as by Diego Velázquez, El Greco, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and Hieronymus Bosch are some of the highlights of the collection.

The collection comprises around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, in addition to a large number of other works of art and historic documents. Some of them are on display, some are on loan to other museums and a large number are in storage.

The Museo del Prado was first opened to the public on 19 November 1819 under the name of the Museo Real de Pinturas (Royal Museum of Paintings), having been created at the behest and under the patronage of King Ferdinand VII (reigned 1808 – 1833). The Louvre Museum, the first public museum and the model for all those created afterwards, had been inaugurated in 1793. Although it was a royal museum, the Museo del Prado shared the Louvre’s objective of exhibiting the art treasures which had until then been known and enjoyed only by a very small group of members of the royalty, the aristocracy and the church. The notion of making art public had its roots in the Enlightenment and its development in the Revolution, and like many other ideas, it was spread through the whole of Europe by the Napoleonic Invasions.

Ferdinand VII by Vicente López y Portaña
Ferdinand VII by Vicente López y Portaña

Although the museum dates from the early years of the 19th century, the history of its art collections begins four centuries earlier. It is the history of royal collecting since the 15th century, when Ferdinand and Isabella, with their preference for Flemish painters, laid down some of the precepts that would be followed by future royal collectors.

Wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella
Wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella

Their grandson, Emperor Charles V, continued to collect works by the principal Flemish artists, such as Van der Weyden, Van Eyck and Anthonis Mor, but his attention was also drawn to Italian artists like Titian, who became the portraitist of both the emperor and his son, Philip II, under whom the royal painting collection received its first great impetus in the 16th century. Thanks to these two monarchs and to Mary of Hungary (1505 – 1558), the sister of Charles V and governor of the Netherlands, the Museo del Prado possesses an exceptional collection of works by Titian, an artist who subsequently had an enormous influence on the path taken by the Royal Collection and on the development of Spanish painting as a whole. Philip II also inherited his predecessors’ taste for Flemish art, purchasing works by Van der Weyden, Bouts, Patinir, Campin, Gossaert, David, and above all Bosch, of whose work the Museo del Prado has the finest collection in the world. Also in the collection are works by his portraitist Anthonis Mor and Sanchez Coello created a characteristic type of official portrait whose influence lasted until the 18th century, and the works of many artists, mainly Italians, working on the most important artistic project of the age, the decoration of the monastery of El Escorial.

Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of Charles V on Horseback
Charles V on Horseback by Anthony Van Dyck
Prado Museum, Charles V by Titian
Charles V by Titian

The other great milestone in the history of the Royal Collection came with Philip IV, whose reign, from 1621 to 1665, coincided with one of the climactic moments in Spanish painting. Not only was Philip IV the patron of Velázquez, but he was also an indefatigable collector who commissioned numerous works expressly for the decoration of his royal palaces. Large decorative cycles were created for the Torre de la Parada, with major contributions from Rubens and Velázquez, and for the new Buen Retiro Palace. Philip IV’s passion for collecting is clear from the works he acquired at the sale of the estate of King Charles I of England, another of history’s great collectors, whose collection was auctioned off in London after his execution in 1649. During the 1640s and 1650s, Velázquez served as both court painter and curator of Philip IV’s expanding collection of European art. He seems to have been given an unusual degree of freedom in the role. He supervised the decoration and interior design of the rooms holding the most valued paintings, adding mirrors, statues and tapestries. He was also responsible for the sourcing, attribution, hanging and inventory of many of the Spanish king’s paintings. By the early 1650s, Velázquez was widely respected in Spain as a connoisseur.

Philip IV by Velazquez, 1644
Philip IV by Diego Velázquez, 1644
Philip IV by Diego Velazquez, 1631
Philip IV by Diego Velázquez, 1631

After the death of Charles II, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, the arrival of the new dynasty also led to a change in artistic taste. The Bourbons, who reigned in Spain from 1700 onwards, brought French artists and a greater interest in the more classicist Italian art. Philip V purchased the important collection of the painter Carlo Maratta, with works by the Carracci, Sacchi and Poussin. His second wife, Isabella Farnese, was responsible for enlarging the Royal Collection with works by the 18th century Flemish and Dutch painters and Italian artists. While the court was resident in Seville (1729 – 1733), she purchased a large number of works by Murillo. In 1742, Philip V and his wife also bought the set of sculptures which had been assembled in Rome in the second half of the 17th century by Queen Christina of Sweden. Together with works acquired in Rome by Velázquez under commission from Philip IV, these were to form the basis of the Museo del Prado’s collection of classical sculpture. With the Bourbons, the last two great masters of the late Baroque in Europe, Corrado Gianquinto and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, also came to Spain to work on the decoration of the royal palaces. Tiepolo’s time in Spain coincided with that of another of the great artistic figures of the day, Anton Raffael Mengs, who introduced classicist academicism in the country.

Proclamation of Philip V as King of Spain in the Palace of Versailles on November 16, 1700, by François Pascal Simon Gérard
Proclamation of Philip V as King of Spain in the Palace of Versailles on November 16, 1700, by François Pascal Simon Gérard

The reign of Charles IV was another great period for the painting collection. Besides having Goya and Paret under his patronage, he enriched the Royal Collection with works by Barocci, Andrea del Sarto and Raphael, also adding pieces by Spanish artists like Ribera, Ribalta and Juan de Juanes. Charles IV was succeeded by Ferdinand VII who was the founder of the Museo del Prado.

Charles IV by Francisco Goya
Charles IV by Francisco Goya

If the Museo del Prado were to be identified with a single artist, it would surely be Diego Velázquez. Exhibited at the museum are some fifty of the approximately one hundred and twenty paintings known to be by the artist, including his most outstanding and ambitious works. Velázquez is literally at the centre of the museum, in the great basilica-style hall on the main floor where Las Meninas is displayed. Velázquez not only provided the Museo del Prado with his own works, but his keen eye and sensibility were also responsible for bringing much of the museum’s fine collection of Italian masters to Spain, now the largest outside of Italy.

Museo del Prado, Great Hall
Museo del Prado, Great Hall

Velázquez studied the Royal Collections and in them he assimilated the ‘Spanish taste’ created by the Habsburg monarchs. Thanks to the very works by Mor, El Greco, Titian, Tintoretto, Ribera and Rubens, which now hang alongside his own in the Museo del Prado, he was able to enrich his painting to a prodigious degree, creating his own personal style characterised by free and subtle brushwork and a new manner of interpreting pictorial genres.

Velázquez’ importance, aside from his personality, lay in his enormous capacity for mastering all the great pictorial genres throughout his long career. A portraitist par excellence, he was nevertheless able to uphold his standards when painting genre, mythology, landscape, religious and allegorical subjects.
The evolution of his portrait painting is astonishing, as all his portraits lack the affectation characteristic of the other artists that cultivated this genre. After his return from Italy in 1629, his royal portraits become more realistic and less idealised. Contemporary with the Flemish portraits which Van Dyck painted for Charles I of England, his realistic characters were set on virtually abstract landscape backgrounds. Velázquez did not paint his models as he wanted to, but as he actually saw them. His series of members of the royal family in hunting dress, commissioned for the Torre de la Parada and the Hall of the Realms, bear out Velázquez’ penchant for realistic portrayal.

Diego Velázquez Self-portrait
Diego Velázquez Self-portrait

Diego Velázquez was born in Seville in 1599. He trained in the workshop of his future father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco, and most art historians believe he also spent a brief period in the workshop of Francisco Herrera the Elder. In his early work, known as the Seville period (1617 – 1623), the painted religious and genre subjects, and the occasional portrait. In 1623, he embarked on his period of Court painting. Thanks to his father-in-law’s connections and his growing reputation, Velázquez moved to Madrid and was asked to paint a portrait of the young King Philip IV. The king was so happy with the result, he appointed Velázquez a court painter and would not let any other artist paint him. In 1627, he won a competition – set by the king – to paint an image of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. Velázquez’ winning picture was destroyed in a fire at the palace in 1734, but it supposedly showed Philip III pointing his baton towards a group of Moors, while the female personification of Spain watches calmly on. The artist was appointed a gentleman usher as his prize and received a daily allowance.

In 1629 he made his first journey to Italy where he visited Ferrara, Venice and Rome. These cities had a decisive influence on his ongoing artistic development, apparent in Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan with its marked classicist accent and Joseph’s Blood-Stained Coat Brought to Jacob, with conspicuous Venetian overtones. On his return to Court, in 1931, he embarked on a decade rich in pictorial production, ranging from such historical subjects as The Surrender of Breda to portraits full of character, particularly those of the royal family, and superb portraits of jesters, with brief forays into religious painting, such as Coronation of the Virgin (1642) and SS Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit (1642).

In his last two decades, at the height of his powers and the summit of his ambition, but juggling multiple commitments to the king, Velazquez’ output dropped to an average of two pictures a year. Yet what pictures!

In 1649, Velázquez went to Italy on official business: that of purchasing paintings for an art gallery Philip IV wished to open. Jusepe Martinez describes Velázquez’ aesthetic leanings through the artist’s reply to the king on how the gallery should be structured: “If His Majesty gives me licence to go to Rome and Venice, I pledge to seek and purchase the finest works by Titian, Paolo Veronese, Bassano, Raphael, El Parmigianino and others of the sort. Very few princes have paintings of this kind, and in such quantities as Your Majesty shall acquire through my endeavours. Moreover, the lower floors must be adorned with old statues, and those that could not be made. They will be voided and the moulds brought to Spain, where they will be suitably cast.”

In Rome he painted the well-known portrait of Pope Innocent X which reveals his enormous facility in portraying a subject’s psychological makeup.

Pope Innocent X by Diego Velazquez, 1650
Pope Innocent X by Diego Velázquez, 1650

Also from this period, and in keeping with the traditional way of working up to a portrait of the Pope, is a portrait of his Mulatto servant and attendant, Juan de Pareja, of which Palomino said: “All the others look like painting, only this one is real”. Some authors claim that his two views of Villa Medici date from this period, as does the magnificent Rokeby Venus.

Portrait of Juan de Pareja by Diego Velazquez, 1650
Portrait of Juan de Pareja by Diego Velázquez, 1650

He stayed on in Rome for longer than the king had hoped, although this was not related to the acclaim he received from art lovers in that city: he was appointed member of the Academia dei Virtuosi al Pantheon and of Academia di San Luca. However, he was loath to break off relations with the sovereign, as Poussin had done, and set off on the return journey in May 1651. That same year, on the King’s intervention, Velazquez was appointed chief chamberlain of the palace, an office with extensive influence on decoration and style but endless household minutiae as well.

He then entered his late period, in which his brush stroke becomes abstract in the extreme, and his works filled with rich Baroque conceptualism. His portraits of the new queen, Mariana of Austria, and the ill-fated Felipe Prospero, led up to his best known work, Las Meninas (1656), a veritable synthesis of his entire pictorial conception, open to a host of interpretations. This period ends with the Fable of Arachne, better known as Las Hilanderas (‘The Spinners’). Executed towards the end of his life, it appears to mark a return to the realistic style of his Seville period.

The Spinners by Diego Velazquez, 1657
The Spinners by Diego Velázquez, 1657

Las Meninas has long been recognised as one of the most important paintings in Western art history. The Baroque painter Luca Giordano said that it represents the “theology of painting” and in 1827 president of the R.A. Sir Thomas Lawrence described the work in a letter to his successor David Wilkie as “the true philosophy of the art”. More recently, it has been described as “Velázquez’ supreme achievement, a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what painting could achieve, and perhaps the most searching comment ever made on the possibilities of the easel painting”.

The painting represents a scene from daily life in the palace of Philip IV. In the painting we see Princess Margarita in the centre accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting (“meninas”); doña Marcela of Ulloa who is speaking to Diego Ruíz Azcona; Velázquez himself painting; José Nieto Velázquez in a doorway at the back of the painting; and on the wall at the back there is a mirror reflecting the image of the monarchs King Philip IV and Mariana of Austria.

The painting is one of the most widely analyzed works of art in Western painting. It raises questions about reality and illusion. Is the portrait, in fact, a mirror from the perspective of the King and Queen? Is this why their reflection can be seen in the mirror on the back wall? Since children are “little mirrors of their parents,” perhaps this is what Velázquez meant when he put the King and Queen as reflections in the mirror or the whole portrait as a reflection of a mirror. Much is still speculated today about the questions of reality vs. illusion. Velázquez presents nine figures, eleven with the King and Queen, and occupy only the lower half of the canvas. The upper half is bathed in darkness. There are three focal points to the painting:
•La Infanta Margarita Teresa
•the self-portrait of Velázquez
•the reflected images of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana

Though the accurate handling of light and shade, Velázquez brings these three figures to the front as the focal points. The room in the painting gives the appearance of natural light within the painted room and beyond. There are two sources of light in the room: the thin shafts of light from the open door and the broad streams coming through the window on the right. Velázquez uses light to add volume and definition to each form, but also to define the focal points of the painting.

Light streams in from the right and brightly sparkles on the braid and golden hair of the female dwarf, who is nearest the light source. However, her face is turned away from the light and in the shadow so as not to be a focal point. The light glances on the cheek of the lady in waiting near La Infanta, but not on her facial features. La Infanta is in full light and her face is turned toward the light source even though her gaze is not. Her face is framed by pale blond hair and sets her apart from the rest of the painting. Her decorative clothing and the lighting make her the focal point of the painting.

In the self-portrait of Velázquez, the viewer sees his face is dimly lit by a reflected light rather than direct light. His total face is looking out, full-on to the viewer and draws attention to him and shows his importance. The triangle of light on his sleeve reflects on the face.

The elusiveness of the painting suggests to the viewer that art and life are an illusion. The relationship between reality and illusion was an important concern in Spain in the 17th century. This dichotomy between reality and illusion also comes up in Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes, the great Spanish novel from Spain’s Golden Age and in the Baroque form.

It is said that Philip IV painted the honorary Cross of Saint James of the Order of Santiago on the breast of the painter as it appears today on the canvas.

Las Meninas, detail
Las Meninas, detail

In 17th century Spain, painters rarely enjoyed high social status. Painting was regarded as a craft, not an art such as poetry or music. Velázquez worked his way up through the ranks of the court of Philip IV, and in February 1651 was appointed chief chamberlain of the palace, however court nobles rejected a mere painter’s claim to parity, the status as the favourite of the king notwithstanding. The art historian Svetlana Alpers suggests that, by portraying the artist at work in the company of royalty and nobility, Velázquez was claiming high status for both the artist and his art, and in particular to propose that painting is a liberal rather than a mechanical art. This distinction was a point of controversy at the time. It would have been significant to Velázquez, since the rules of the Order of Santiago excluded those whose occupations were mechanical.

For an artist-courtier, the knighthood spelled social acceptance which was denied to painters by a status-conscious aristocratic society. Velázquez did not receive the knighthood until 1659, three years after execution of Las Meninas. Even the King of Spain could not make his favorite a belted knight without the consent of the Council of Orders established to inquire into the purity of his lineage. The aim of these inquiries would be to prevent the appointment to positions of anyone found to have even a taint of heresy in their lineage — that is, a trace of Jewish or Moorish blood or contamination by trade or commerce in either side of the family for many generations. The Council found that there was no evidence that Diego Velázquez’ family was conversa (Jewish or Moorish converts to Catholicism), however it also found that there was no proof of blue blood. Velázquez could only enter the noble Order of Santiago with a papal dispensation. Later that year the pope (Innocent X, thoroughly buttered up with the portrait above) issued the necessary brief and Diego Velázquez became a knight in a formal ceremony. Six and a half months later he was dead. After Velázquez’s death, the king wrote “I am crushed” in the margin of a memorandum on the choice of his successor.

Philip IV’s first wife, Elizabeth of France, died in 1644; and their only son, Balthasar Charles, died two years later. Lacking an heir, Philip married Mariana of Austria in 1649, and Margaret Theresa (1651–1673) was their first child, and their only one at the time of the painting. Subsequently, she had a short-lived brother Philip Prospero (1657–1661), and then Charles (1661–1700) arrived, who succeeded to the throne as Charles II at the age of three. Velázquez painted portraits of Mariana and her children, and although Philip himself resisted being portrayed in his old age he did allow Velázquez to include him in Las Meninas. In the early 1650s he gave Velázquez the Pieza Principal (“main room”) of the late Balthasar Charles’s living quarters, by then serving as the palace museum, to use as his studio. It is here that Las Meninas is set. Philip had his own chair in the studio and would often sit and watch Velázquez at work. Although constrained by rigid etiquette, the art-loving king seems to have had an unusually close relationship with the painter.

In the 1966 book Les Mots et Les Choses (The Order of Things), philosopher Michel Foucault devotes the opening chapter to a detailed analysis of Las Meninas. Foucault describes the painting in meticulous detail, but in a language that is “neither prescribed by, nor filtered through the various texts of art-historical investigation”. Foucault viewed the painting without regard to the subject matter, nor to the artist’s biography, technical ability, sources and influences, social context, or relationship with his patrons. Instead he analyses its conscious artifice, highlighting the complex network of visual relationships between painter, subject-model, and viewer:

We are looking at a picture in which the painter is in turn looking out at us. A mere confrontation, eyes catching one another’s glance, direct looks superimposing themselves upon one another as they cross. And yet this slender line of reciprocal visibility embraces a whole complex network of uncertainties, exchanges, and feints. The painter is turning his eyes towards us only in so far as we happen to occupy the same position as his subject.

For Foucault, Las Meninas contains the first signs of a new episteme, or way of thinking, in European art. It represents a midpoint between what he sees as the two “great discontinuities” in art history, the classical and the modern: “Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velázquez, the representation as it were of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us … representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.”

Now he (the painter) can be seen, caught in a moment of stillness, at the neutral centre of his oscillation. His dark torso and bright face are half-way between the visible and the invisible: emerging from the canvas beyond our view, he moves into our gaze; but when, in a moment, he makes a step to the right, removing himself from our gaze, he will be standing exactly in front of the canvas he is painting; he will enter that region where his painting, neglected for an instant, will, for him, become visible once more, free of shadow and free of reticence. As though the painter could not at the same time be seen on the picture where he is represented and also see that upon which he is representing something.

Velázquez died in 1660, but his influence lives on. Pablo Picasso was so enchanted by Las Meninas that he toyed with it over and over again, playfully, satirically, obsessively, recreating and reinterpreting it, in whole and in parts, he made a suite of 58 paintings titled collectively Las Meninas. He isolated the painting’s various elements and figures, he altered the lighting, changed the colours, and substituted the original mastiff for his own dog, a beloved dachshund called Lump. The series also includes landscapes, paintings of doves and a portrait of Jacqueline, who became his wife four years later. He donated all the paintings to the Museum Picasso in 1968, the only complete series of his paintings to have remained together.

Picasso Series of Las Meninas
Picasso Series of Las Meninas

If you want to see Las Meninas, you have to visit the Museo del Prado as the painting is not lent out for exhibitions.

The only flaw in an otherwise perfect visit was that you can’t take photos in the museum, so Puffles and Honey couldn’t be at the centre of it all!

Prado Museum
Prado Museum

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