Western painting is full of symbols and allusions. (TRANSLATION NOTE this is not ‘illusion’ but ‘allusion’ – reference, association, relationship.]
In traditional painting their meanings had roots in other paintings, other arts, in religious and secular texts, and also in the artists’ invention. However, ‘reading’ the symbols depended on each viewer’s knowledge of these other sources as well as their education and experience. So there were differences of opinion on what some paintings conveyed.
This ambiguity was exaggerated by the seventeenth century Spanish painter Velázquez. Maybe he was giving amusement to the rich and educated merchants, courtesans, and royalty who were able to see his works. It is very evident in Las Hiranderas, one of his later works.
‘Las Hiranderas’ means ‘The Spinners’.
Spinning is making yarn or thread for weaving. In the West its meaning has changed to the idea of political manipulation through public relations people called spin doctors. These are usually male.
In the time of Velázquez spinning was female work. Prior to the invention of the spinning wheel, a wood pole was used to hold the stems of crops, mostly flax, or the hair from animals, mostly wool. This material was lengthened onto a wooden spindle that was twirled in the other hand to pull out and twist the material into thread.
Thread was the basis of essential garments, coverings, and tents. Like baking and cooking it was done mostly by women.
In fact the pole holding the vegetation or animal hair was called the ‘distaff’ and this word was used to denote the female side of a family. It was predominantly held in the left hand and the left side is considered female in the West, whereas in China the yin side is the right side of the body.
The word ‘distaff’is not used very often in this way today. A notable survival of the word is in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, a horse race for fillies (young female horses) and mares (mature female horses) in America and Canada.
All the people in Las Hiranderas are women.
There is a group of five in the foreground communicating and making thread with a spinning wheel and wrapping the thread on a holding frame.
Another, more opulent, group, also of five women, can be seen at the back of the painting. The room they are in looks like a stage as there is a high steps into it. They seem to be enacting part of a pageant or play. One of them is wearing a greek-style war helmet and gesturing. There is a musical instrument near one of the women.
On the wall behind them is a tapestry. Many well-to-do houses would have had tapestries on the walls for warmth, enjoyment and education, and to show the status of the owners.
This tapestry brings in Velázquez’s teasing and showing-off side. It is a rendition of a painting called The Rape of Europa by a pervious Spanish Court painter, Titian. Titian died before Velázquez was born but was acknowledged by Velázquez as a great master. Another great painter of the Spanish Court was Peter Paul Rubens. He was Flemish and had a studio in Antwerp. He was alive at the same time as Velázquez and was a scholar and a diplomat who Phillip IV of Spain knighted—as did Charles I of England.
Velázquez was also a court painter of Phillip IV but was not knighted until 30 years after Rubens; and, when Rubens died in 1640, it was left to Velázquez to complete the work Rubens had begun for the king’s hunting lodge, Torre della Parada.
Perhaps Velázquez resented his subordinate position to Rubens. Perhaps this was why Velázquez had Titian’s painting as a tapestry in Las Hiranderas as the best tapestries known in the West came from Belgium, where Rubens came from. However, tapestry by this time was subordinate to oil painting.
Velázquez would have heard of or possibly seen Rubens’ copy of Titian’s The Rape of Europa and so known that Rubens felt in some way indebted to Titian.
There is more to the allusions and references in this painting usually called Las Hiranderas, ‘The Spinners’. So much more that experts have changed their interpretation of the painting and many have given it a separate title.
But that is another story for another issue of Middle Land.