Diego Velázquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. Oil on canvas, 60 x 103.5 cm, London, National Gallery

Velázquez spent his formative years and the first part of his career in Seville, where he lived until settling permanently at the court in Madrid in 1623. The city had the largest and most varied population in Spain and was a very important hub of economic and intellectual activity. In the field of painting, the last Mannerist artists worked alongside painters who were receptive to new naturalistic trends. Velázquez was one of the latter, as evidenced by his works, which show an emphasis on detailed depictions of objects and models, a fondness for earthy colours and an interest in scenes taken from daily life. This interest in everyday life was expressed in scenes of taverns and street vendors and also in various religious paintings that display an extraordinary combination of real-life experience and sacred history and attest to the artist’s early taste for narrative paradox. In both Christ in the House of Martha and Mary and the Supper at Emmaus, the foreground is occupied by kitchen scenes which give way, in the background, to Gospel figures. This device, which Velázquez may have learned from Netherlandish paintings and prints, is a reflection of his interest in exploring the boundaries between reality and history, which is found later in The Fable of Arachne (‘Las Hilanderas’), painted at the end of his career. These works contravene the classicist principle whereby the main motif should occupy a prominent position in the composition and they demonstrate Velázquez’s pursuit of original artistic solutions.

Diego Velázquez, La cena en Emaús, Oil on canvas, 55 x 118 cm. Dublín, National Gallery of Ireland

Velázquez’s earliest religious paintings attest to his beginnings as a painter, and also provide a glimpse of his intellectual formation and of the devotional expectations of Seville society. The Virgin of Immaculate Conception and Saint John the Evangelist on the Island of Patmos reflect the Marian cult that succeeded in uniting almost the entire population in defence of a common belief; at the same time, the iconography employed shows the artist’s closeness to Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644), his master and father-in-law and a member of the city’s intellectual elite. In these works and in the Adoration of the Magi he again explored the relationship between historical narration and everyday life, and depicted the human figures with highly realistic features; indeed, they are most likely based on real models. In the case of the Adoration of the Magi, the appearance of the older king matches the known portraits of Pacheco, and the young king and the Virgin and Child are probably portraits of the painter himself, his wife and their newborn daughter.

This tension between the everyday and sacred history was promoted by the Counter-Reformation Church and was much encouraged by certain religious orders, such as the Jesuits, for whom this work was painted. The powerfully realistic language of these paintings was a novelty in Seville, where many artists still subscribed to codes of idealisation such as those expressed in the Saint John the Baptist by Martínez Montañés, the most important artist of the time. But Velázquez was receptive to all kinds of creative stimuli, as evidenced by the Virgin bestows Chasuble on Saint Ildefonso, which he painted after a short trip to Madrid, where he had the opportunity to study works by El Greco.

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