The Bobbin & the Distaff
Wendy Bird argues that Velázquez’s use of erotic imagery helps to explain his famous work in the Prado, one of the most mysterious paintings of the 17th century
Friday, 2nd November 2007
Few paintings are more enigmatic than Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas, or The Spinners (Fig. 1). Painted around 1656-58, it depicts a group of women spinning, with, in the background, a depiction of the fable of Arachne set in front of a large tapestry.1 A breakthough in understanding it was made in 1903, when it was noticed that the tapestry is based on Titian’s The Rape of Europa, or, as is now generally believed, the copy painted by Rubens in Madrid (Fig. 3).2 Since then, numerous interpretations have been put forward. This article draws on recent research that sheds new light on Las Hilanderas.
As recounted by Ovid in Metamorphoses (Book vi), The Rape of Europa was the subject of the tapestry woven by Arachne of Lydia in competition with Pallas Athena (Minerva).3 For this reason Las Hilanderas is also known as ‘The Fable of Arachne,’ and was listed as La fabula de aragne in the 1664 inventory of the possessions of Pedro de Arce, a distinguished courtier whose main responsibility was to guard the royal apartments at night.4 Because Arachne boasted of her weaving skills, Athena, patron of the craft, challenged her to a competition. Arachne chose to illustrate the loves of the gods, beginning with the rape of Europa by Athena’s father, Zeus. This so angered the chaste goddess that she struck her opponent over the head with a shuttle. Arachne hanged herself and Athena turned her into a spider suspended from its thread.
The identification of this source does not solve the riddle of Las Hilanderas. Because Velázquez aspired to an art that would be as highly regarded as philosophy or poetry, his paintings are intellectually ambitious. They were intended to be read on several levels, and incorporate false trails and conundrums. There are multiple meanings in his mythological paintings, which have their equivalent in textual interpretations of classical sources at that time, such as Juan Perez de Moya’s Philosofia secreta, a Spanish rendering of the classical myths, taken mainly from Metamorphoses. Velázquez owned a copy of this ‘necessary material in order to understand poets and historians’, which was recommended by his teacher and father-in-law, Francisco Pacheco, as an artist’s source book.5 De Moya’s euhemeristic (or rationalising) moralisations ‘reveal’ a number of supposed intrinsic philosophical meanings for each fable.6 Yet his interpretations of the fable of Arachne as a symbol of time (the achievements of one generation will inevitably be surpassed by the next), of pride and vanity (emulating the gods will lead to one’s downfall) and anger (when one’s hard work is despised and spoiled) seem unrelated to Las Hilanderas.7
Most discussion of the painting focuses on the room in which Arachne’s drama takes place, the so-called ‘picture within the picture’, which is seen through a large, square entrance raised above the foreground level (Fig. 2).8 (The arch was added when the painting was enlarged in the 18th century.)9 Less attention has been afforded to the five women in the foreground, who are engaged in carding, spinning and winding yarn. The two scenes have been read in terms of ars et usus (art versus craft), the lower and darker foreground representing manual or ‘base’ craft and the upper, illuminated view the higher liberal arts.10 The transition from lower to higher and from darkness into light is symbolised by a ladder leaning against the wall.11 Class distinction is also suggested, given that the spinners wear working-class clothing, while the three women above are dressed in satin gowns. The sense of progression has been related to the struggle for both art and music to be considered as ‘liberal arts’, thereby raising the social status of the practitioners, an issue of importance for Velázquez.12
A viola da gamba rests against a chair in the background scene.13 This instrument was related to well-established traditions associating music with Venus. In emblem books, music making was a sign of love, a symbol of harmony between lovers, yet Catholic moralists classified secular music and dancing as ‘lascivious’ and venerea, that is, ‘of Venus’ and therefore linked to sensual pleasure.14 Paintings of women in association with musical instruments, often evoking themes of sacred and profane love, were particularly common in 17th-century Dutch painting. The inferences were invariably erotic. There is a viola da gamba in the foreground of Vermeer’s painting of a pretty young lady seated at a virginal (Fig. 4). On the wall behind her is a ‘picture within a picture’, of Van Baburen’s The Procuress (1622), then in Vermeer’s house. This ‘low-life’ painting depicts a prostitute playing the lute, with a client and her procuress.
Vermeer’s own The Procuress, of over 30 years later (Fig. 5), bears a striking similarity to Velázquez’s picaresque reference to ‘low-life’ music in Three Musicians (Fig. 6), in which two men play on lutes and sing, while a boy musician on the left raises a full tumbler, an obscene gesture, and grins out of the picture. On his back is a monkey, symbolic of lust, holding a pear, symbol of the testes and therefore of virility, which may imply that the somewhat inebriated musicians are singing a bawdy popular song.15 In Vermeer’s The Procuress, a man on the left makes the same obscene gesture as Velázquez’s boy musician, again grinning salaciously out at the viewer while holding his cittern (a type of lute) by a phallic fingerboard. In the 17th century, the glass and the fingerboard were universally understood as symbols of the male and female sex organs. Pictorial parallels such as this one, demonstrate that Spain and the Netherlands were linked not only by dynastic and economic ties, but also in their common usage and interpretation of the language of popular culture.
The music evoked in Las Hilanderas, although pertaining to higher social levels, is more subtle but no less sensual in meaning. Erotic themes embodied in classical literature had formed part of a widely accepted poetic tradition in learned society since the early renaissance.16 In striving to raise the status of painting Velázquez would have given lengthy consideration to the relation between painting and poetry, according to the concept ut pictura poesis – ‘as is painting, so is poetry’ – as expounded in Horace’s Ars Poética, a Spanish translation of which he owned.17 However, he did not draw exclusively on learned texts, but also on subject matter deriving from carnivalesque popular culture, which featured extensively in contemporary picaresque novels.
His imaginary portraits of the Greek writers Aesop and Menippus and the court buffoons that he knew in person all bring to mind concepts encountered in the most popular Spanish golden age novels and plays: La Celestina, La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes, Guzmán de Alfarache and La vida y hechos de Estebanillo de González, the work of Cervantes and the poets Quevedo and Góngora, the playwrights Lópe de Vega and Velázquez’s contemporary at court, Calderón de la Barca, among others.
Like Velázquez in a number of paintings, Calderón based some of his allegorical mythological plays on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They provided scope for spectacular theatrical transformations, made possible by the elaborate stage machinery at Philip iv’s new court theatre in the Buen Retiro Palace. Calderón also promoted music theatre, and the elegant women in Las Hilanderas may well be musicians, such as those who played in the Calderonian zarzuelas. Indeed, the space they inhabit is highly reminiscent of a stage set.18
The ambiguous nature of this space renders it difficult to establish whether the figures of Athena and Arachne form part of the tapestry or whether they are on the same plane as the female musicians, as if rehearsing before a backdrop of The Rape of Europa.19 Both are valid perspectives that concur with the idea of the painted image (and the theatre) as an illusion of reality, an idea that Velázquez exploited in other works.20
All the figures in Las Hilanderas are women. The painting celebrates their beauty and sensuality, as befits the author of one of the most sensual female nudes ever painted, Venus and Cupid, better known as The Rokeby Venus (National Gallery, London), a sinuous reclining nude seen from the back, her features indistinctly reflected in a mirror that serves to make facial contact with the spectator. Conversely, in Las Hilanderas the women are unaware of being observed, and behave unselfconsciously.
Parallels have been drawn between the eight foreground and eight background figures, the older woman on the spinning wheel corresponding to Athena (she disguised herself as an old woman to question Arachne), and the central young woman with blurred features (who is carding), corresponding to Arachne.21 Yet these intriguing observations appear to lead nowhere. One clue that does provide a lead is the large cat in front of the carding woman, occupying a central position and dozing in a characteristic meditative pose that evokes feline contentment. An animal traditionally related to luxuria, it is almost invariably represented in the company of women.22
A print by the Dutch engraver Van Meckenem, Visit to a Spinner (Fig. 8), shows a seated man with a spinning woman accompanied by her cat. The fact that the woman is a prostitute would have been immediately clear to anyone at that time, and would still have been in the 18th century, as will become evident. In 16th- and 17th-century Spain there was a flourishing trade in northern prints; northern artists were greatly admired and their works were avidly collected by Spanish noblemen. Many of these prints were iconographical representations of carnivalesque concepts of medieval and classical origin, which were found to have much in common with Spanish popular culture. Replete with double meanings, metaphors and moralising interpretations, they had a considerable influence on Velázquez.23 Moreover, popular carnivalesque themes, reinvigorated through northern humanism, had a direct influence on Spanish golden-age novels. Indeed, La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes and La vida y hechos de Estebanillo González were first published in Antwerp.
Spinning was women’s work, adopted by the establishment as a sign of female industriousness and high moral character.24 However, such exemplary female behaviour had been subject to complex reinterpretation since classical times and through the language of carnival. All the traditions related to spinning and winding constituted some form of humorous commentary on sexuality and Velázquez would have been well aware of them.
Popular traditions relating spinning to lust, eroticism, obscenity and gender role-reversal were also familiar to Goya, who admired Velázquez greatly. Spinners appear in a number of his drawings and prints. The obvious Spanish precedent for these is Las Hilanderas, and Goya may have been among the last to understand its symbolism. His interpretation of popular traditions is more overt. In his capricho print no. 73 (Fig. 9), a monkey-faced man, helping an old woman with her spinning, is leering at a girl who stands with legs apart and hips thrust forward. She stares dreamily into space, absently holding a symbolic huso (bobbin) at the level of her groin; an obscene gesture (the bobbin being a symbol of the female sex organs) that indicates that instead of getting on with her work, she is distracted by erotic thoughts. The title Es mejor holgar (It is better to be idle) is a double entendre as the verb holgar (or folgar), meant both ‘to be idle’ and ‘to fornicate’. The word appears in the dual sense in Cervantes’ Don Quixote and this usage with relation to spinners was well established throughout Europe by the Middle Ages.25 A medieval carving in Zamora Cathedral shows a woman with a bobbin and a monkey with a winding frame, but neither is working, and the woman peers into the monkey’s hindquarters.26
Analogies between lazy spinners and lust gave rise to complex superstitions, such as the popular prohibition of spinning during carnival. Some believed that it was to avoid making knots in the threads of life, which would prevent the soplo (the pneuma or breath of the Holy Spirit) reaching fools and ‘innocents’.27 On the other hand, an old Spanish saying warned against spinning in March because el huso no rabea bien – ‘the bobbin doesn’t bob well’.28 This is clearly a punning reference to the ecclesiastical prohibition of sexual intercourse during Lent, since the verb rabear (to bob or to wag) is a double entendre deriving from rabo (tail), a metaphor for the phallus. The popular subversive response to the Church’s prohibition, in the form of a ‘world-upside-down’ parody, was to prohibit women from working during carnival – which in most cases meant spinning, and, metaphorically, prostitution.
By the time of Velázquez the figure of the spinning prostitute was well established, as is indicated by Sancho Panza’s use of the expression y cada puta hile (‘and each tart to her spinning’).29 Analogies between sexual intercourse and spinning are abundant in Spanish poetry of the golden age.30 Goya drew again on the tradition in San Fernando, como hilan! (San Fernando, how they spin!; Fig. 7), in which three shaven-headed prostitutes learn the useful trade of spinning in the Madrid workhouse of San Fernando.31 The humorous title pokes fun at well-intentioned enlightenment reforms by pointing out that in the workhouse the girls are using the metaphorical tools of their original trade, the bobbin and the distaff, symbols of the sex organs.
Working with threads was also popularly related to the precarious custom of ‘restoring virginity’ with a needle and thread, and a procuress was said to earn her living by ‘spinning’ a thread (hilando) from the prostitute’s huso (bobbin). There are abundant references to this practice in the extraordinarily popular Spanish tragi-comedy La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas (c. 1499). Celestina, the old procuress, has ‘some thin, pointed needles and some waxen silk threads’ for ‘stitching up’ virgins. She uses the word hilado as a metaphor for sexual intercourse, referring to herself as the vendor of a prostitute’s primer hilado (first client). She also quotes an old saying in which spinning tools serve as metaphors for the sex organs ‘The huso (bobbin-female) doesn’t work so well when the barva (distaff-male) is not on top.’ (Barva or barba also means ‘beard’.)32 The name Celestina came to be synonymous with ‘procuress’. She was represented as an older woman with a shawl over her head in the company of pretty girls. Examples include Van Baburen’s The Procuress, various works by Goya – and the foreground of Las Hilanderas.
The origins of many carnivalesque motifs lay in the classical myths, and the tale of Arachne was inexorably integrated into popular traditions relating spinning to lust. The story of Arachne’s compatriot Omphale, Queen of Lydia, who forced Hercules to dress as a woman and spin, is a related theme, popular among painters, that also incorporated the ‘world upside-down’ theme of gender reversal and the idea of sexual ambiguity. There was considerable interest in hermaphrodism in Velázquez’s time. Indeed, part of his mission when he visited Italy in January 1649 was to acquire a cast of the antique marble Borghese Hermaphrodite (now in the Louvre), from which a bronze copy was made which is now in the Prado.33 Velázquez may have visited the Spanish painter Ribera in Naples (then Spanish territory). He almost certainly did so on his first trip to Italy, in 1629-31,34 when he would have seen Ribera’s portrait of the bearded woman Magdalena Ventura (Fig. 10) as a work in progress. It is interesting that Ribera uses the sexual symbolism of spinning tools as a visual metaphor for Magdalena’s hermaphroditic appearance. On top of an inscribed stone pillar beside her are a bobbin (huso) and a distaff (barva). The play on the word barva or barba, meaning ‘beard’, is clear. Magdalena Ventura, like Las Hilanderas, requires to be interpreted through the symbolism of spinning in the language of carnival.
In common with many Spanish artists and writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, Velázquez consulted emblem books for ideas. Convincing arguments have been put forward for his use of Los Emblemas de Alciato.35 The Spanish translation of 1549 contains an emblem representing Athene (Fig. 11) that sheds light on the meaning of Las Hilanderas. The title reads ‘Virgins must be protected’ and the rhyme continues:
What you see here is a true picture of the unwed Pallas, and that spotted dragon is hers, because it is charged with protecting things and keeping them safe. It dwells in woods and temples. It is here to show, that because bold Love sets traps to catch them, young maidens must be kept under close guard.36
The general message is clear. Pallas Athene stands for chastity and one of her roles (like that of the dragon), is to protect virgin maidens from the temptations of love. This is the role she plays in Las Hilanderas.
Velázquez was doubtless familiar with Alciato’s emblem, but in any case the idea of Athena and the dragon as protectors of virginity was an established literary concept in early-17th-century Europe. It plays an important part in this relatively restrained interpretation of ‘The Fable of Arachne’. The three virgin maidens in the background scene of Las Hilanderas are watching an instructive fable being enacted before them. They are shown how Athene punishes Arachne for the provocative erotic subject-matter of her tapestries and in this way they receive a moral lesson that constitutes a warning against the dangers of earthly love. Indeed, the subject-matter of The Rape of Europa is in itself a dynamic example of how, when a virgin dropped her guard, she was carried off and forced by an ardent lover. As young musicians these maidens already practise a form of love symbolism, but as a liberal art, on a ‘higher plane’ than the rhythmic spinning below. On the higher level music and love combine to create harmony and this is the goal the maidens should aspire to in married life.
On the other hand, the spinners in the foreground are practising a craft traditionally associated with earthy sexuality. In a state of semi-undress they take on unrestrained, immodest postures, denoting more relaxed sexual mores. The woman who is winding is wearing a white camisa, an undergarment, and is holding the hilado (spun thread) just above her lap, a subtly veiled allusion to its symbolic meaning, as more explicitly shown in Goya’s capricho 73 (Fig. 9). Her skirt is hitched up to show a naked foot, a symbol of luxuria.37 The view of the back of her neck is similar to that of Venus in Velázquez’s Venus and Cupid and the erotically charged effect is the same.
Yet there is a detail that crosses this divide. Velázquez shows that one of the vulnerable maidens is not paying attention. She looks towards the working spinners, who are oblivious to the moral lesson being delivered above, with innocent curiosity.
Velázquez’s voyeuristic incursion into the sultry atmosphere of the tapestry workshop, an intimate female world in which the nape of a neck, a bare arm and an ankle have the power to inflame the passions, is a celebration of female sensuality, morally justified by means of the fable played out for the benefit of the more distant, less attainable virgin maidens, in their bright and superior ‘picture within the picture’.
Wendy Bird is an art historian whose doctorate was on Goya and the carnivalesque. She lived for 20 years in Spain, where she carried out extensive investigations into Spanish art and popular culture.
LATEST NEWS & COMMMENT
Brussels plays host to a trio of outstanding fairs at the Place du Grand Sablon in early June, and the ever popular Carré Rive Gauche – now in its 36th year – returns to the Left Bank in Paris.
The work of John Nash has often been overshadowed by that of his contemporary, John Soane. But his pragmatism, as well as his experiments with the picturesque, make him one of the most significant of all British architects.
Apollo is published in London, one of the world’s great art capitals and home to extraordinary, thrilling exhibitions such as last year’s ‘Bronze’ at the Royal Academy