The longer one looks at Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas, the more questions arise. Case in point: Scholars have been analyzing the painting for over three centuries, and still haven’t settled on its meaning.
“Few paintings in the history of art have generated so many and varied interpretations as this, Velázquez’s culminating work,” wrote art historian and Velázquez expert Jonathan Brown in his 1986 book, Velázquez: Painter and Courtier. Nearly two decades later, during a 2014 lecture at The Frick Collection, he quipped, “I feel in my bones that I may be suffering from the early stages of LMFS—Las Meninas Fatigue Syndrome,” adding, “I’m not referring to the painting, but to the writing about it.”
An enigmatic group portrait of sorts, Las Meninas is populated by an odd cast of characters, including a princess, a nun, a dwarf, and the Baroque artist himself. A stark divergence from traditional royal portraiture, many have likened the painting to a snapshot, in the sense that it packs in a wealth of action. At the same time, close examination reveals that it doesn’t seem to follow the rules of perspective.
Without clear evidence of the artist’s intentions or the wishes of his patron, viewers and historians alike are mostly left with theories and unanswerable questions.
Despite this ambiguity—or, perhaps, because of it—Las Meninas has found a place among the greatest Western paintings of all time. Below, we break down what we do (and don’t) know about this inscrutable Spanish masterpiece.
THE ECSTACY OF SAINT THERESA
Upon entering the convent aged 19, Theresa became seriously ill (she has now become a patron saint for the infirm), possibly depressed and subjecting her body to self-mutilation.
By the time she reached her forties, Theresa had settled down to her new spiritual life, when one day, while praying and singing the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus," she experienced the first of the episodes that would accompany her for the rest of her life: a rapture.
In her writings, Theresa describes how she would feel suddenly consumed by the love of God, feel the bodily presence of Christ or of angels, and be lifted to an exalted state of ecstasy. Although in her own lifetime Theresa was sometimes ridiculed for such claims, or even accused of communing with the devil, she became a prominent figure in the church. Theresa was one of only three female church doctors and was finally canonized in 1622.
THE NIGHT WATCH
It was given its popular but misleading title in the late 18th-century, based on the false assumption that it depicted a nocturnal scene. In fact, its subdued lighting was caused by the premature darkening of its multi-layered varnish. The picture was a huge success at the time, not least because it turns a fairly humdrum subject into a dynamic work of art. Unlike other Baroque portraits of militia companies, which traditionally portrayed members lined up in neat rows or sitting at a banquet, Rembrandt's painting shows the company fully equipped, ready for action, and about to march.
The full title of the portrait, as recorded in the family album of Captain Banning Cocq, runs: "Captain Heer van Purmerlandt (Banning Cocq) orders his lieutenant, the Heer van laerderdingen (Willem van Ruytenburch), to march the company out." Marked by Rembrandt's signature chiaroscuro and dramatic tenebrism, the work is among the most famous examples of 17th century Dutch painting. It hung in the Kloveniersdoelen in Amsterdam until 1715 when it was moved to the Town Hall; in 1808 it was transferred to the Rijksmuseum.
FEAST OF THE CHAIR OF ST. PETER
The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter commemorates Christ’s choosing Peter to sit in his place as the servant-authority of the whole Church. Jesus told Peter that “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” It is with this pastoral responsibility given him that the Pope shepherds Christ’s flock.
In this exclusive video, Vatican Media presents the masterpiece of the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which contains the ancient relic from the early centuries of Christianity.
The wooden throne encased in bronze by Bernini was given to Pope John VIII by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Bald in 875.
As Pope emeritus Benedict XVI said in 2012, the Chair is "a symbol of the special mission of Peter and his Successors to tend Christ’s flock, keeping it united in faith and in charity."
THE CRUXIFIXION OF SAINT PETER
Saint Peter, already nailed to the half-raised cross, provides the focus of the composition. Following the tradition that he chose to be crucified upside down so as not to rival Christ, the cross is being elevated with his feet above his head. This position permits him to turn his head to look out of the picture, not toward the worshiper, as in Michelangelo's Pauline Chapel fresco, but toward the crucifix on the chapel altar, as a source of reassurance to him and as his testimony of faith. The emphasis of the picture is on this faith. There is no bloodshed or sense of pain ; the artist has eschewed sensa-tionalism for understated drama. The executioners - the one in the lower left corner derives from Jac-opo Bassano - are characterized as effcient anonymous mechanical forces, coarse but without the rancor of those in The Flagellation.
The only one of their faces that is at all visible is hidden in shadow and is expressionless. Saint Peter is depicted as a husky old man, hardly worn by age, not panic-stricken as in his denial of Christ or in the Quo Vadis Domini? in the ceiling fresco overhead, but calm, stern, resolute, a rock of faith on which the Church could be founded and would be secure. His position of helplessness and his acceptance of his martyrdom contrast with the executioners straining at their task. But they are merely the apparent operative force, for they have significance only in relation to him, as the means through which he can witness Christ and go to the better life.
This message is conveyed with great economy of means. The mechanics of elevating the cross have been carefully calculated so as to be convincing. But the absence of spectators transmutes the crucifixion from an historical event to a personal ordeal. Presumably Caravaggio made use of his newly developed nocturnal light less as a stylistic mannerism than to emphasize this intimacy. The figures are set relief-like against the dark wall. They are ponderous, deliberate, and dignified; their monumental massiveness reinforces the import of the martyrdom.