Leading up to the Special Council on Human Sexuality in April, the Reformed Church in America has published a series of 21 devotionals to help the denomination and participants prepare. We encourage all Room for All supporters to sign up to receive these devotionals via email and follow along as we pray for the church and particularly those LGBTQ people who are participating.
In addition, Room for All has commissioned a series of 21 Inclusive Prayers and Devotionals written by supporters and friends of Room for All to coincide with and complement the RCA’s series. We will publish those here on OUTsights over the next 21 days.
These readings and prayers are solely the words and opinions of each guest writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Room for All, their staff, or the board.
A Reflection in 3 parts from Marilyn Paarlberg
In yesterday’s post, I introduced a poem based on this painting, and hinted at a back story which, for me, invokes a compelling word for the church. Today, I’ll try to condense that story; I hope you’ll hang in with me! Tomorrow I’ll reflect on the possible implications of all this for the RCA Special Council.
The painting above hangs at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin, and a second is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago. The Chicago version, more technically superior, was originally thought to be authentic, and the Dublin version an inferior copy. However, each depicted only the domestic scene in the foreground.
Everything changed in 1933, when the Dublin version was cleaned and restored, revealing the Emmaus window scene under layers of paint. This window technique was employed by Velàzquez in other early works, which led art historians to believe that this version was also authentic, and the earlier of the two, painted when the artist was around twenty years old.
Here’s where things get interesting. The later version at the Art Institute was restored in 1999, and no trace was found suggesting that the painting might have at any time had any religious significance, or that it is anything other than a painting of a mulatto maid working in a kitchen. One explanation is that Velázquez returned to a previous theme in order to improve on it, concentrating on the tactile qualities of the various objects and disregarding the earlier religious motif.
But is this the only explanation? Why not artistically improve upon the entire painting, including the window scene? Why eliminate the Emmaus allusion altogether in the second painting, and why even go so far as to paint over it in the original version? Here’s some context:
Diego Velàzquez lived during the middle years of the centuries-long Spanish Inquisition, a tribunal under the direct control of the monarchy, established to maintain Catholic orthodoxy and purity in the realm. Conversion to Christianity was forced on those practicing Judaism (conversos) or Islam (moriscos); even then, they were accused of heresy, persecuted, or expelled. Hundreds of thousands of conversos fled, and by the early 1600’s, almost no moriscos were left in Spain; most who remained were forced into slavery and sexual servitude. The mixed-race offspring of such unions were mulata/o (Spanish for mule, a cross between a horse and a donkey), and were typically household servants.
In this historical setting, Velàzquez was raised in a devout Christian family from presumably aristocratic heritage. In his early career, he painted religious scenes such as the one above, and stated that he intended to paint common people. However, a royal commission in 1622 led to his position as the court painter for King Philip IV, where he remained for the rest of his life, painting people of privilege and enjoying exemption from the artistic censorship of the Inquisition. Velàzquez himself had a mulato slave assistant whom he painted in 1650 and freed soon thereafter (a story in and of itself). He was knighted in 1659 after an inquiry into the purity of his lineage found no trace of Jewish or Moorish blood. (Ironically, more recent scholarship indicates that his paternal ancestors were of converso descent.)
So what does all this suggest? Is it possible that Velàzquez, now employed by the king who controlled the Inquisition and guaranteed him a privileged life, felt compelled to paint over the religious allusion in the earlier work, and then later go on to create a second, more skillful copy leaving it out entirely? During such religiously volatile times, would it have been offensive, even dangerous, to place a mixed-race social outcast of Islamic descent in the same setting as devout disciples at supper with Jesus? The mulata seems to be eavesdropping; might it have been heretical to imply that her heart, too, burned within her at Jesus words? Was the artist’s earlier intent to paint “common people” no longer politically acceptable, nor to hint that those on the margins of society might also have a place in this story?
The back story of the poem may seem simpler, but I’m guessing it’s not. Natasha Tretheway is, herself, a mulatto, the daughter of a mixed-race marriage; a fact which figures prominently in the subject of many of her poems.) Considering the poem through that frame, I invite you to reflect on these questions and close with the prayer below.
- What could it mean that the kitchen maid “is” the objects on the table?
- What might Tretheway want to suggest in comparing the maid’s shadow to a thumb-shaped, blood colored stain?
- What are some ways that the maid might be “the echo of Jesus?”
Prayer: Jesus, come to us in the complicated stories of our lives. Help us put away our carefully constructed frames, that we might recognize you anew and understand what you would have us do to be your faithful echoes in the world you love.