Sometimes a jug is just a jug. Others, it is the door to a new way of perception.
In the masterpiece “Las Meninas”, a game of shadows and mirrors that has never ceased to intrigue, a small and until now quite unnoticed clay jug in the center of the canvas transforms the work, a snapshot of palace life, into a treatise on the illusory and transcendental nature of existence.
Without this clay object, the mystery of the work withers, which has captured the attention of observers for more than three and a half centuries, since Velázquez’s brush illuminated it in 1656.
To fully appreciate how a popular piece of pottery from Latin America becomes a lens to capture the world again, we must remember the cultural context in which the painting arose and what it was intended to portray.
The work shows a self-portrait of the artist at age 57, four years before his death in 1660 and after having spent the last three decades as a chamber painter to King Felipe IV of Spain.
Palette in hand on the left side of the scene, Velázquez’s life-size “selfie” looks at us as if we are the same object he is trying to capture on the huge canvas before him.
It’s a painting on a painting in the imaginary surface of a canvas that we can’t see.
In the center of the painting, to the left of Velázquez, we see the Infanta Margarita, daughter of King Felipe IV and Mariana of Austria, flanked by a couple of ladies on duty.
The rest of the dimly lit room of the Royal Palace of Madrid lights up with a motley group of courtiers.
Doors of perception
Through an open door at the back of the scene, a misty silhouette, the queen’s chamberlain, prepares to abandon the painting, but not before stopping to look at us, as if eager that we might follow him into the unknown.
To the left of the door, a mirror reflects the spectral faces of the king and queen, whose location in the world of the work is unknown. The monarchs andThey are there, but they are not there.
These aspects of the work – the open door and the real faces in the ghostly mirror – have led many observers to suspect that there is much more at work in the painting than meets the eye.
The “absent” presence of the king and queen, who appear in the painting but not in the scene, forces us to conclude that it is a philosophical work on the substance of the substance and the proximity of the here and now, much like a frozen image of a scene from lively palace life.
The puzzle of their reflection ensures that we are not passive bystanders, but actively seek to understand where in the world they are.
Does the mirror place them where we are, as subjects of a portrait that Velázquez is painting?
Or is the mirror showing what is already on that large canvas, of which we only see the reverse? This second option would make the image in the mirror an imaginary reflection of the surface of an imaginary painting that portrays characters whose whereabouts we can only imagine.
A vanishing point that vanishes
“Las Meninas” plays with our mind and our retina.
On the one hand, the perspective lines of the canvas converge and drag our gaze towards a vanishing point, which is the door.
But on the other, the mirror draws our attention to the back of the painting, to assess the possible position of the real spectra.
We are constantly dragged in and out of the work, while the room that Velázquez draws becomes a strange elastic dimension that is both transitory and eternal, a tangible realm, but also misty and imaginary.
Velázquez’s images have an almost psychotropic effect on us. They foster an almost trance-like state to which painting has brought the public generation after generation.
Perhaps we are describing a hallucination or a mystical vision rather than a painting.
Easy to ignore at the crossroads of optical, philosophical, and psychological perspectives that appear in the painting, there is an object that perhaps offers a material clue to the effect claimed by Velázquez’s hallucinogenic masterpiece on our consciousness: a vibrant red dot in the form of a small jug.
This modest jug, offered to the young infanta (and us) on a silver platter by a pleading servant, should have been recognized by contemporaries as the embodiment of mind and body altering properties.
Known as a vase, this simple piece of clay was one of the most coveted handicrafts among which Spanish explorers from the New World brought back to the old in the 16th and 17th centuries.
According to the art historian Byron Ellsworth Hamann, who has carefully studied the origin of many of the objects that appear in Velázquez’s paintings, including the silver tray from “Las Meninas,” the characteristic brightness of pitcher and the reddish hue distinguish it as a product of Guadalajara, Mexico.
A secret blend of local spices baked in the clay when the vase was made ensured that any liquid it contained was delicately scented.
But the vase was known to fulfill another more surprising function.
In 17th century Spanish aristocratic circles it became something of a fad for girls and young women to nibble on the edges of these porous clay jugs and slowly devour them completely.
A chemical consequence of consuming the foreign clay was a dramatic skin lightening to an almost ghostly hue, which at that time was an aesthetic aspiration and a demonstration of wealth and that one’s livelihood did not depend on work done under the sun that darkened the skin.
Oddly enough, consuming vase clay was less dangerous than some contemporary alternatives, such as smearing a Venetian paste made of lead, vinegar, and water on your face, resulting in blood poisoning, hair loss, and death.
But the ingestion of vase clay also caused the dangerous reduction of red blood cells, paralysis of the muscles and the destruction of the liver.
It also caused hallucinations. According to the autobiography of a contemporary painter and mystic, Estefanía de la Encarnación, published in Madrid in 1631, the addiction to biting vases resulted in increased spiritual awareness.
The woman says it took her “a full year” to get rid “of this vice”, but that the narcotic effect caused her visions that allowed her to “see God more clearly.”
Symbol of the imperial twilight
When we map the physiological and psychotropic effects of vase dependence in the “Las Meninas” puzzle, the painting takes on a new and perhaps even more disturbing meaning.
The altered consciousness of the Infanta, whose fingers encircle the vase (did she just nibble on it?), Suddenly expands from the epicenter of the action of the canvas to the whole mentality of the painting.
Furthermore, we can see that Velázquez’s brush points to a spot of the same deep red on his palette, the same from which the vase is born.
Ghostly in her paleness, the Infanta also seems to levitate from the ground, an effect achieved by the shadow that the artist inserts under the hem of her parachute-shaped dress.
Even the parents of the Infanta, whose images float directly on the vase, they begin to look like holographic spirits projected from another dimension rather than mere reflections in a mirror.
Suddenly, we see “Las Meninas” for what it is, not just a snapshot of a moment, but a meditation on the evanescence of the material world and the inevitable evaporation of the self.
Throughout his nearly four decades of service to the court, Velázquez witnessed the gradual decline of the dominance of Philip IV. The world was slipping away from him.
The vase, a trophy of colonial feats and waning imperial power, is the perfect symbol of that sunset and the abandonment of the mirage of now.
The vase cleverly anchors the confusing scene and, at the same time, is directly involved in its confusion.
Simultaneously physical, psychological and spiritual in its symbolic implications, the vase is a keyhole through which the deepest meaning of Velázquez’s masterpiece can be glimpsed and unlocked.
* This article was originally published on BBC Culture, in English, and you can read it here.
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