Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Las Meninas

An encyclopedia of artistic greatness. (Via The Western Confucian.) I discovered Velazquez when I was in seventh grade and have been intrigued with him ever since. In the words of Blake Gopnik:
 Even on the surface, at very first glance, "Las Meninas" presents itself as a certifiably "great painting." When you stand before it at the Prado, where it has lived since 1819, you have to be impressed by the huge canvas. It fills the better part of a wall at the far end of the museum's most imposing gallery. The room is often full, but the power of this work keeps its audience hushed. Even school groups settle down.
The painting's subject is grand. The little girl at the painting's center is the 5-year-old Infanta Margarita of Spain, the most recent heir to king Phillip IV, portrayed in her unsullied perfection. A decade earlier, the king had lost his only son and his first wife, so this child is proof of the fertility of his new bride, his niece Mariana of Austria. (When they married, he was 51 and she was 15, and she had once been the intended of the dead prince.) With the dynasty teetering, the little Infanta was one more heir to guarantee the royal line, and thus an obviously worthy subject for superlative painting. Margarita was also a valuable pawn in the diplomatic marriage game, which was how Spain built its empire and forged alliances. In 21st-century terms, the Infanta was the equivalent of a major arms or trade deal, all but signed. This portrait of her is also a picture of dynastic and political capital.
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thetimman said...

Wow, I did not know the great age disparity nor the closeness of blood relation of her parents. A little unsettling.

However, a great, great painting, and my all time favorite. I have had the privilege of visiting the Prado twice, and will never forget it.

elena maria vidal said...

And she married her uncle. Some really disgusting inbreeding went on, I am sad to say.


Anonymous said...

First this painting has intrigued me since boyhood, I did not know what an Infanta was ( we hadn't many in 1970's New Jersey ), but the image drew me in, as it does today. Thank you.
I also meant to mention how much i have enjoyed your posts since first discovering the site. Informative as well as visually satisfying.
Leonard @ BabylonBaroque

The North Coast said...

Yes, Elena, the inbreeding among many royals is really appalling, but marrying a 15-year-old child to her 51-year old uncle is an all-time low even for a crowed of people notable for incestuous marriages. Amazing that these royals were so obsessed with maintaining "pure" lineage that they could not grasp the wisdom of the incest taboos that everyone else abided by.

It's interesting that among the ancient Egyptian royals who married sisters to brothers to ensure the "purity" of their line, that the royals had a much lower average lifespan than poor commoners; something like average life expectancy of 22, vs 35 years for the "common". That tells us that the inbreeding resulted in unstable, delicate people with multiple recessive genes that result in crippling physical defects, that need a lot of genetic reinforcement on both sides of the family tree to appear, and which are quickly bred out when people marry beyond their families and closely knit communities.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Leonard, I enjoy your blog as well!

Yes, NC, how the Habsburgs married each other is not too far from the practice of the ancient Egyptians. The result was usually unhealthy offspring.

Anonymous said...

All very interesting. I cannot understand how two of such close consanguinity were allowed to marry within the Church--or were they?

BTW--Happy New Year, Elena!

Christina said...

Yes, and the results of that inbreeding can be seen in the Infanta Margarita's brother, the unfortunate Carlos II. They nicknamed him "El Hechizado" (the Bewitched) but really he was a victim of a family tree that didn't branch. He was the last of the Spanish Habsburgs.

What I've always wondered is how on earth they were able to get Church approval for these marriages, considering that marriages of first and even second or third cousins were prohibited without a dispensation. I seem to remember reading that maternal uncles were not considered "close" relatives, but it still boggles the mind.

elena maria vidal said...

Happy New Year, Gette! Yes, those marriages had papal dispensations. Such dispensations were reserved for marriages in which the peace of nations was dependent upon the alliance forged by the nuptial tie. Although it is still difficult for me to get my mind around it, especially Margarita calling her husband "Uncle" which apparently she did.

The North Coast said...

You have to wonder if the line breeding and resulting offspring with physical and mental defects did more to weaken these monarchies and leave them vulnerable to insurrections and revolutions than all the liberationist philosophers bless'm) and rebel cells ever could have.

Because there's no question that many, if not most, of the people born to these positions were not only not especially suited for public life, but would probably have been unsuitable for any gainful occupation.

I have to be amazed that there as many competent and intelligent monarchs with a real gift for governance as there were.

Adam said...

It is VERY important that people do not hold up history to the values & standards of their own time. That said, I must state that, contrary to popular belief, the Austrian & Spanish Hapsburgs did not interbreed due to any delusion about the "purity" properties of their blood à la the ancient Egyptian royals. Although many of the Hapsburgs did believe this, albeit in an abstract way, it had more to do with paranoia about keeping power in the family, especially since the Holy Roman Hapsburg Emperors were Emperors elect y technicality. The little Infanta Margaret Theresa in the painting - who eventually became Holy Roman Empress & German Queen - was herself the product of several Uncle & Niece unions (including her parents), so it was very normal to her when she herself married her own Uncle, her mother's brother: Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. The culmination of the disastrous Hapsburg breeding habits ended with not only Charles II of Spain but with Margaret Theresa & her uncle's own daughter, Maria Antonia of Austria, Electress of Bavaria.