In 1656, Diego Velazquez (1599-1660), a giant in Western art, painted his greatest work, Las Meninas. This exceptionally large – and enigmatic – painting has captivated viewers and critics alike for over 350 years, and remains one of the most highly analyzed, debated, and discussed works of art. This monumental picture was painted when Velazquez had been working at the Spanish royal court of Philip IV for 30 years – when he was at the height of his artistic skills and creativity.
There is so much to look at and absorb when one looks at this picture – the Infanta Margarita Teresa, her dog, the dwarves, the mirror reflecting the king and queen, the man in the backlit hallway who’s either coming – or is he going – the artist himself in the act of painting. Despite looking at this picture, analyzing it for hours, I barely noticed the red jug on the silver plate which the lady-in-waiting is offering to the Infanta. And once I noticed it, it was all I could focus on. It is the same deep red as on Velazquez’s palette – the same red as the cross of the Order of Santiago on his chest. Why did he choose the same deep red for all three – whatever his reasons they add to the enigma that is Las Meninas.
The easy to miss tiny red clay jug is almost as fascinating as the rest of the painting. The jug is there because of the trade between Spain and the Americas. Very often, paintings from this era include objects brought back by traders from oceans away. This water jug – called bucaro in Spain– was most likely from Guadalajara, Mexico and was made of a mixture of clay and spices which perfumed and flavored the drinking water it held.
But that’s not all – the clay itself has mysterious properties – and when women bit off and chewed pieces of the jug and consumed it slowly over time, it made their skin pale – white almost to the point of ghostliness. Eating the clay also induced hallucinations – and of course numerous side health issues. Queen Elizabeth of England had made ghostlike white skin fashionable and a symbol of wealth – which made bucaros a highly coveted item in Spain at this time.
In light of this, Las Meninas become even more enigmatic – look at the Infanta’s fingers just about to wrap around the bucaro, her exceptionally pale skin, and her almost levitating feet – is Velazquez hinting at a trance-like state? What is Velazquez telling us – and why is the red of the bucaros similar to the red of his paint and the red of the Order of Knighthood? More mysteries – or does the bucaro hold the key to the mysteries of this masterpiece?
(Sources: Museo Prado, Velázquez’s Las Meninas: A detail that decodes a masterpiece by Kelly Grovier, bbc.com, Oct 16, 2020)