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Velázquez’s Fables. Mythology and Sacred History in the Golden Age

Madrid 11/20/2007 - 2/24/2008

Through the mythological and religious subjects he painted, Velázquez was able to address a broad range of expressive, formal and conceptual problems. This exhibition focuses on this facet of his oeuvre and encourages reflection on its importance. It examines the original manner in which he confronted these themes and the development his art over the course of his career.

Velázquez’s religious and mythological painting cannot be studied without taking into account the creative concerns of his contemporaries or the models from which he drew inspiration. The exhibition therefore includes a series of paintings and sculptures by seventeen different artists, allowing viewers to trace the creative context in which he worked.
Velázquez’s paintings are grouped into several sections, each of which features works by other artists, thereby establishing a three-way discourse between the painter’s thematic interests at a particular moment in his career, the evolution of his style and narrative technique, and the models available to him and his colleagues’ concerns.

Javier Portús


Room 60 - 63, Ground Floor. Villanueva Building

Sponsored by:
Fundación Axa-Winterthur



Velázquez, the History Painter

As part of its inaugural programme marking the opening of the new extension, the Museo del Prado is presenting the exhibition Velázquez’ Fables, the first to offer an in-depth analysis of this aspect of the artist’s work as a painter of narratives. The exhibition brings together 27 works by the artist in addition to 24 by 17 other artists with the aim of revealing the context in which the artist executed some of his most important paintings. Among the works by Velázquez to be seen in the exhibition are 12 loans including The Rokeby Venus from the National Gallery in London, one of the artist’s most famous works no longer in Spain.

The 51 works in the exhibition depict a variety of subjects from biblical history, mythology and the classical world with the intention of focusing on Velázquez’ originality in his approach to such themes, his remarkable technical versatility and the development of his art over the course of a career spanning more than four decades. With this aim in mind, the 27 works by the painter are juxtaposed with a further 24 by various artists which allow for an appreciation of Velázquez’ response to external creative stimuli. Among the other artists in the exhibition are two sculptures by Martínez Montañés and Gregorio Fernández, paintings by earlier masters such as Titian and Caravaggio, and works by great Spanish painters of Velázquez’ own generation and the previous one such as El Greco, Ribera and Zurbarán. It also includes examples of work by the leading non-Spanish artists of the day with whom the artist was familiar and who in some cases influenced his own painting such as the Flemish painter Rubens, the French artists Poussin and Claude Lorraine and the Italians Guercino, Guido Reni and Massimo Stanzione.

The group of works on display by Velázquez comprises his sacred and mythological compositions now in the collection of the Prado as well as other important paintings on loan. The latter include Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, The Immaculate Conception and Saint John the Evangelist from the National Gallery in London; Saint Paul from the MNAC in Barcelona; The Supper at Emmaus from Dublin; Joseph’s blood-stained Coat brought to Jacob from El Escorial (which will be seen next to Apollo in the Forge of Vulcan); and The Temptation of Saint Thomas from Orihuela.

Among the works by other artists represented in the exhibition special mention should be made of Poussin’s The Triumph of David; Saint John the Baptist by Martínez Montañés; Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Guido Reni; Democritus by Ribera; The Immaculate Conception by Alonso Cano; and Rubens’ Heraclitus.

Seville: religion and daily life

Seville: religion and daily life
Supper at Emmaus
Diego Velázquez
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.

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.

Mithology and Reality: "los Borrachos"

Mithology and Reality: "los Borrachos"
The Feast of Bacchus
Diego Velázquez
Museo Nacional del Prado

After settling at the court in 1623, Velázquez devoted himself chiefly to portraiture, which he alternated with incursions into other genres such as sacred history, mythology and landscape. His first mythological painting was ‘Los Borrachos’, which was painted about 1629 and marks a milestone in his career. While the theme ushered in a genre to which he would subscribe until his death, many of the human figures belong to the world of his Sevillian bodegones or “kitchen scenes”. The work is also stylistically close to his early period, as the powerful realism of the faces, the palate rich in ochres the and extraordinary descriptive detail place it in the context of Caravaggesque naturalism, as does the modelling of Bacchus’ torso. It was the first and last mythological work in which the artist used this type of artistic language.Although the work has sometimes been viewed as an attempt at “demystifying” mythology by employing a burlesque attitude towards the ancient gods, the use of powerfully realistic human figures is justified by the subject-matter of the scene, which shows Bacchus mingling with mortals to bring them the gift of wine. Velázquez’s use of a naturalist language to address themes related to mythology and ancient history brought him close to other artists like Caravaggio and also his contemporary Ribera, who depicted philosophers dressed as beggars.

The Roman Horizon

The Roman Horizon
Joven con cesto de frutas
Galleria Borghese, Roma.

Velázquez spent in Italy from September 1629 to the end of 1630, mostly in Rome. It was a voyage of learning in which, among other things, he studied ancient sculpture and the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. The works he produced there include the Forge of Vulcan and Joseph’s Bloodied Coat presented to Jacob, two large “history” paintings in which he sought a formula for depicting convincingly a group of people’s reaction to unexpected news: in the mythological scene, the adultery of Venus, the wife of Vulcan; and in the Bible story, the supposed death of Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons. In both works the painter displays his mastery in rendering gestures and emotions. From the point of view of narrative technique and formal construction, they mark a step forward in his career. Velázquez overcame the spatial limitations found in Feast of Bacchus (‘Los borrachos’) and succeeded in integrating space, action and human figures in a very natural manner, employing the nude in an architectural setting. This concern with expressing emotions was common to the leading artists active in Italy, who were then seeking ways of renewing classicist forms of narration. This room illustrates the qualities of several of their works dated to around 1630: from the narrative clarity of Guido Reni’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife and emotive nature of Guercino’s Resurrected Christ appears to the Virgin, to the compositional rigour of Poussin’s The Triumph of David.

Devotion and Meditation

Devotion and Meditation
The Apostle Saint Peter appearing to Saint Peter Nolasco
Francisco Zurbarán
Museo del Prado

Around 1630 Velázquez produced several religious works. They would be the last great paintings on this subject he executed and place him among the Spanish painters who succeeded in creating the most effective images for conveying devotional feeling. They are all easily readable, inspire reflection and meditation and point to an artist in full command of his talents, who made extraordinary use of his Italian experience, addressing each theme in an original manner. In Christ on the Cross he again exploits the unlimited possibilities of the nude, in Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit he shows he was developing the interest in landscape he had shown earlier in Rome. In the The Temptation of Saint Thomas Aquinas he again proved his ability to convey emotions and establish a fluid relationship between the human figures. This work marked the use of a wider range of colours, which became increasingly broad over time, a feature that also characterises the Coronation of the Virgin.

One of the aspects that sets Velázquez apart from the rest of Spanish artists is the small number of religious works her produced. At the same time, it is precisely this field that gives us the best insight into what relates or separates him aesthetically from his colleagues of the same generation, with some of whom he was friends. Important works by Zurbarán, Gregorio Fernández and Alonso Cano depicting themes similar to those of Velázquez attest to the quality and the variety of the Spanish artistic production and situate his religious painting in a precise context.

The Nude

The Nude
The Toilet of Venus
Diego Velázquez
National Gallery, Londres

From the end of the 1630s, Velázquez produced several mythological works that are among the most important and original of his day and enabled him to establish a fruitful dialogue with pictorial tradition. These paintings mark the culmination of his tendency to emphasise the values associated with colour as opposed to drawing and to make colour his main vehicle of expression. In this respect he continued the tradition of Titian and Rubens, many of whose works could be found in the Royal Collections. These artists became two of the main reference points for the development of his style.Mythology led Velázquez to address the nude, a theme rich in connotations. It is the form which western tradition has linked most closely to the idea of art, that which best expresses the values of colour and, at the same time, the place where the boundaries of art and decency converge. In the Rokeby Venus, Velázquez found an alternative to the nudes of Titian and Rubens, while demonstrating his unique status in relation to his Spanish colleagues, as his position at court freed him from the moral restraints that fettered the others. In Mars he employed a warm, sumptuous range of colours, modelling the forms with light and colour and erasing the limits between figure and setting, seeking to convey a sensation of life and transitoriness, as in Mercury and Argus. At the same time, he preserved his taste for narrative paradox and instead of depicting the god of war with heroic features, he painted him tired and melancholic.

Philosophy and history

Philosophy and history
Guido Reni
Colección Denis Mahon

Velázquez’s interest in exploiting the tension between reality and its representation and double meanings is not only expressed in religious and mythological scenes. It is also found in his images of ancient philosophers and modern heroes. He depicted Aesop and Menippus in the rags that were starting to become common in images of philosophers, whereas Barbarroja and Juan de Austria are not the military heroes they appear to be but buffoons disguised as such. The first two were painted for the Torre de la Parada, in relation to Rubens’s Heraclitus and Democritus, and it is very interesting to compare them in order to trace Velázquez’s progression. Rubens’ philosophers are barefooted; one smiles and the other cries. They are absolutely Rubensian in build—sturdy and well muscled—and their gestures are consonant with soundly established codes of expression. Velázquez places his in an indoor setting; their clothing and shoes are those of any beggar of any Spanish city, and his approach to the faces is realistic. They are situated in space like the sitters in many of his portraits, and he plays with the boundaries between portrait and fiction.

Several sibyls, who were held to possess powers of divination, complete the group of paintings linked to philosophy and history. A comparison between the two versions by Velázquez allows us to trace the painter’s development from the early 1630s to the following decade.

Weaving the Fable

Weaving the Fable
Fable of Arachne
Diego Velázquez
Museo Nacional del Prado

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.



Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 60 x 103.5 cm
London, National Gallery


Supper at Emmaus

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 55 x 118 cm
Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland


The Immaculate Conception

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 135 x 101.6 cm
London, National Gallery


Saint John the Evangelist in the Island of Patmos

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 135.5 x 102.2 cm
London, National Gallery


Saint John the Baptist

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas
Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago


Saint Paul

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 99.8 x 78 cm
Barcelona, Museo Nacional de Arte de Cataluña


Saint Ildefonso receiving the Chausuble

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 165 x 115 cm
Seville, Ayuntamiento, Descalzas Reales


Saint John the Baptist

Juan Martínez Montañés
Polychromered wood, 153 x 65 x70 cm
Santiponce, Monasterio de San Isidro del Campo


The Annunciation

El Greco
Oil on canvas, 114 x 67 cm
Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza


Boy with a Basket of Fruits

Oil on canvas, 70 x 67 cm
Rome, Galleria Borghese


Saint Joseph’s Tunic

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 213.5 c 284 cm
Madrid, Patrimonio Nacional, San Lorenzo de El Escorial


Christ Appearing to the Virgin

Oil on canvas, 260 x 179 cm
Cento, Pinacoteca Civica


Joseph and Putifar’s Wife

Guido Reni
Oil on canvas, 220 x 188 cm
Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum


The Triumph of David

Nicolas Poussin
Oil on canvas, 118.4 x 148.3 cm
Londres, Dulwich Picture Gallery


The Temptation of Saint Thomas

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 240 x 200 cm
Orihuela, Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro de Orihuela


Christ alter the Flagellation contemplated by the Christian Soul

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 165.1 x 206.4 cm
London, National Gallery


The Immaculate Conception

Alonso Cano
Oil on canvas, 182.5 x 112 cm
Vitoria, Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro de Vitoria, depósito de la parroquia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Berantevilla


The Rockeby Venus

Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 122.5 x 177 cm
London, National Gallery


Ares Ludovisi

Plaster, 159 x 76 x 120 cm
Madrid, Museo Nacional de Reproducciones Artísticas



Diego Velázquez
Oil on canvas, 64.7 x 58.4 cm
Dallas, Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University



Guido Reni
Oil on canvas, 74.2 x 58.3 cm
Bolonia, Pinacoteca Nazionale

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