Description of the artwork «Las Hilanderas (The Fable of Arachne)»
You look at a large-scale painting considered by José Ortega y Gasset, the famous philosopher of the twentieth century, as the best late work by Velázquez. He did not mention the spoiled by everyone’s attention Las Meninas, rendering the Spanish court, but he named the common Spinners (Las Hilanderas) as a real landmark painting. You should, however, undertake a certain effort to understand the picture, which full name is The Spinners or the Fable of Arachne.
At a first glance, you probably will not understand what’s going on here: there is not a single woman looking at the viewer or sending him/her any hinting signals. Postures of the spinners at the foreground are as realistic as unusual. Typically, Velázquez used to paint important persons associated with the royal court. They were facing viewers in a traditional ceremonial statics (1, 2, 3, 4). Although, we see here his personages depicted in a rhythmic wavelike movement. Some of them are shown from their back. Others are bent, turned around, crouched, for they are completely immersed in their work.
The room where women are busy with yarn is dark. It reminds us of the early bodegones by Velázquez. These were the representations of daily life, rendered in Caravaggio’s manner (1, 2). In the adjoining room, separated from where the spinners sit by two massive steps, a beam of sunlight streams. Ortega y Gasset believed that this stream of light falling from the left is the protagonist (main character) of the picture.
This sunlight generously shines at another group of women in elegant dresses. Next to them, some musical instruments stand. The wall behind them is covered with a giant expensive tapestry. Its images, if you will, can also be decoded. Certainly, several questions come up at first: what do these two groups of women have in common? By what means are they connected? Why did Velázquez combine aristocrats and commoners? And even more, he has not only connected these areas but placed them according to a mirror principle. These two groups have similar composition: two persons are placed on the right and left, one is on the forefront and several are on the background.
However, these two groups of women are linked only to immediately make them opposite. “They work here – they play there; there is an unprocessed wool in here – there is a finished tapestry there; here, they pull the curtain aside to let the light in – there, everything is filled with light; the spinning wheel is running in here – there is a cello on which no one plays out there. Here is the space of work, crafts, and actions; and there, is a space for contemplation, for the pure art,” art critic Marina Toropygina compares. “These two themes – craft and art – are compared and at the same time reflect each other."
As it turns out, the connection between these two groups, the two opposite worlds, is much more profound. It is not only in composition but in semantics. The tapestry scrutinized by the noble ladies tells the story about… the spinners. Just recently, art historians managed to ascertain the motives the tapestry is based on. Velázquez borrowed its theme from a famous painting by Titian, Rape of Europa. Which, in turn, links to a mythical weaver Arachne. According to an ancient myth, Arachne was so adept at weaving that she became arrogant, and claimed that her ability rivaled that of the goddess Athena, who was not only the goddess of wisdom but the patron deity of weavers and quite an accomplished weaver herself. Arachne's insolence outstretched even further: she wove a tapestry showing one of the love affairs of Zeus, Athena’s father, in which Zeus abducted Europa, the daughter of Agenor, the Phoenician King of Tyre. Such was Arachne's skill that her work equaled that of the goddess, and Athena, overwhelmed by anger, transformed the woman into a spider who should forever weave its web. The term that means “fear of spiders” or "arachnophobia," is made on this myth.
So, art historians have decided that The Spinners by Velázquez illustrates the fable of Arachne told by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses (Book VI) in a modern way. The most inquisitive researchers moved even further. They dared to assume that Velázquez embodied his wife Juana de Miranda into an image of an elderly woman at a spinning wheel on the foreground. He married her when she was 19-year-old and lived all his life with her. Yet, in the figure of a young spinner, turned back to spectators, the researches see his secret lover, an Italian artist Flaminia Triva. Allegedly, you can see her naked back in the only erotic picture Rokeby Venus by Diego Velázquez. Thus, he might have hinted that the spinners in his picture are the antique Moirai or Fates, weaving the thread of his personal destiny.