Weaving the Fable
The Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas) is one of Velázquez’s last mythological works and one of his most ambitious and complex compositions. As in Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, the main action takes place in the background, behind what appears to be a genre scene. However, the forty years that separate the two paintings had not passed in vain, and during this time the artist became one of the most subtle narrators of his day. Through colour and aerial perspective he succeeded in establishing a very fluid relationship between the different spatial planes and integrating the numerous narrative elements into a whole.
The subjects of the scene are the goddess Pallas and Arachne, a mortal extraordinarily skilled at tapestry weaving. After pitting their respective talents against each other, the goddess, whose pride was hurt, turned her rival into a spider for daring to represent the love affairs of Jupiter, her father. One of these episodes is shown in the background tapestry, which is based on Titian’s Rape of Europa that was painted for Philip II and was copied in 1628-1629 by Rubens, who approached his predecessor’s work with the aim of learning from and measuring himself against him. Both original and copy were two of the most prestigious paintings in the royal collections.
In the Golden Age the dispute between Pallas and Arachne was linked to the idea that nobody is so expert in their art as to leave no room for future improvement. The theme was addressed in treatises on art, and Velázquez probably wished to update it with reference to the example of Rubens challenging the work of his predecessor Titian. The painting explores other art historical concerns, such as the transformation of matter into creative form, represented respectively by the weavers in the foreground and the goddess and her rival arguing before the tapestry.