Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez

 

Have a look at one of the most enigmatic paintings in art history, Las Meninas (1656), painted by famous Baroque Era artist Diego Velazquez (1599-1661).

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This painting is built on a very complex system of compositional lines and area divisions. Below you can see a handmade analytical sketch of its compositional structure:

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You may have noticed the Santiago Cross on the painter’s chest. Santiago is the spanish name for Saint James, one of the earliest and important martyrs in Christian history. Saint James is believed to have preached in Spain, so he is seen not only as a martyr, but also as the founder of the first Christian community in Spain. He has therefore been considered to be the protecting Saint of the Spainish lands and people. Interestingly enough, Diego Velazquez’s first name is a spanish equivalent of the name James.

Velazquez got accepted into the Santiago Order a few years after the impressive work he did with Las Meninas, and the Santiago Cross on the painter’s chest was added to the painting after his acceptance.

But his motivation was quite beyond mere adding the cross later on. It influenced his design and composition right from the start. When one analyzes the composition carefully, one detects that the compositional lines do intersect at the heart of painting so as to create an invisible version of the Santiago Cross. The cross is positoned on the -from our view- right shoulder of the Infanta, almost at the center of the painting. One arm of the cross stretches towards the King, whose reflection can be seen in the mirror; the other arm stretches towards Nieto Velazquez, brother of Diego, who stands at the stairway.

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Do add more to this, let us extend the lines of this compositional grid to their natural limits.

Let’s look at the expanded composition vertically first. We find it to look similar to a church plan.

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An oval used at the center of a church’s design was something often used in Baroque Architecture. A good for an oval design  is Bernini’s Saint Andreas Church.

However, a deeper search does not really yield any results for a church designed after this model, and especially not one that was built in the name of Saint James.

 

Bu this changes when we use the grid sketch vertically. One may now say that it resembles the façade of a building.

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It does not take long to find a church façade like this. Actually there is one church in Spain, dedicated to Saint James, that is extremely important: The Santiago Church of Compostela: Here is a view of the Eastern façade, where the relics of Saint James are buried.

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And here the extended grid of Las Meninas, layed out and divided vertically.

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It looks like that the acceptance to the Santiago Order was of much more importance to Diego Velazquez than one might have imagined. His design for Las Meninas seem to go back as far as to the Church of Saint James himself.

The compositional structure of the façade of the Santiago Church must have been used as a blueprint for the painting’s compositional structure. The Santiago Cross is therefore already present in the painting in many ways.

But finally the painter was accepted to the Santiago Order and he could paint the Cross on his chest as well.

Great job, Senor!

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