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DIEGO VELAZQUEZ AND HIS PAINTING: The triadic matter of reality



Carlos G. Musso

Nephrology Department – Hospital Italiano de Buenos aires – Argentina



Reality is both one and many.

The senses are bad witnesses; only the wise man can obtain knowledge.


Heraclitus of Ephesus (VI century BC)


In the XVI century, Spain started loosing its role as an international power, which was taken over by other nations such as France and England. However, this economical and political drawback was accompanied by a fruitful painting and writing activity. Because of that this period is known in the history of arts as  the Golden Spanish Century. Diego Velazquez, in fact Diego Rodriguez Velázquez de Silva (Figure 1), was one of the artists who contributed to the development of this period, being also one of the greatest painters of the Baroque style. He was born in Seville, where he started his training at an early age thanks to his parents who had noticed artistic attitude in him. After finishing his training, he moved to Madrid where thanks to his talent and the contacts his father-in-law had in the royal circle, he was able to get a job as official painter in Felipe IV court. His painting style was initially influenced by the artistic school founded by the Italian painter Caravaggio, who used extensively light and shadows (chiaroscuro technique) in his painting. Then, he received the influence of the Flamish School (especially from Rubens), incorporating mythological subjects in his work, and finally he was strongly influence by the Venetian School with its use of bright colours (cromatism). Velazquez ´s originality is based on the following features: -He described the personality of the portrayed person by painting his attitude, look and body posture. -He painted nobles and kings focusing on their human aspects, not trying to show them as divinities. Conversely, he painted the royal buffoons and dworves with dignity and respect, levelling in this way the social and physical differences among people. Further more, he was able to comply with the court duties while he created his own visual and conceptual world,  being in the end himself  his real master. His most famous masterpiece is the one called “Las Meninas“ (Figure 2) painted three years before his death in 1656. It is considered by most critics a real “lecture” of painting. Many famous painters as Goya, Manet, Picasso, Dali and even philosophers such as Michel Foucault have studied it in detail. This painting, “Las Meninas”, shows a palace setting where Velazquez is painting the royal couple: Felipe IV and the Queen, both reflected in the mirror at the back. Velazquez painted himself at the left side of the painting. Together with the painter are the little princess Margarita (at de right side) accompanied by her two maids (the “meninas“), two palace dworves, her dog, and three royal employees. Some critics think this masterpiece is not only a class of painting but also a lecture of philosophy. They think that this work tell us about Velazquez ´s awareness of the concept of the three realities in which every human being is immersed: the real reality, the imagined reality and the social one.

This concept had already been described by Ancient Greek philosophers, especially the one developed by Heraclitus and followed by the school of Sicily. They understood reality as a triadic concept: 1) the real reality, that in fact is like no reality at all from a human perspective since it can not be reached by anybody, 2) the imagined reality: the one that each person sees, and finally 3) the social reality: the common one shared among every people, and which is transmitted by the language. This triadic situation was called by philosophers: “the none, the hundred thousand and the unique human realities” (that means the real, the imagined and the social realities) Later the same concept was taken by the Italian writer Luigi Pirandello and the French psychoanalist Jacques Lacan. From their perspective, the real reality is the one that can not be realized by men due to the limitation of their senses, the imagined reality is the one that arises from the encounter between the real reality and the mind of a person, giving place to a non-transferable (subjective) interpretation and finally the social realty which is the one transmitted through the language and shared by everybody. Jacques Lacan redefined this concept as the three human registers..Men can not read their sorrounding world without language. But men have created many different kinds of languages such as: mathematics, music, etc in order to expand their learning tools. Painting is an expression of art whose  main objective is conveying emotions and feelings, but it can also function as a cognitive tool. If we apply the above described concepts to “Las Meninas” painting, in this masterpiece the real royal couple painted by Velazquez represent the real reality, since they were the models on whom the painting was based, but they are “unreachable” to anyone who watches at the painting. The imagined reality is represented in the painting by the image of the royal couple which is supposed to be painted on Velazquez ´ canvas, since only the painter is able to see it. This situation represents the subjectivity of Velazquez´ point of view (his imagined reality). Finally, the reflected image of the royal couple on the back mirror, which can be seen by everybody who looks at the painting, represents the social  reality. In every day medical activity it is crucial for physicians to realize the triadic nature of reality to remind himself the patient´s perspective that is not necessarily his family´s nor his physician one. Furthermore, the same concept runs among nurses and all other members of the healthcare team. To exercise respect for others´ opinion, empathy, and compassion are various ways that help health care providers to come closer to the imagined reality of the patients and collegues, expanding their own imagined and limited point of view and consequently increasing their proximity to the unreachable real reality (truth). Velazquez plays in this painting with the ideas of the real, the painted and the reflected or which is the same wtih the real, the imagined and the social realities. Since Velazquez spent all his life painting many “realities”, perhaps this situation helped him to realize that there is no exact painting of anything but mere interpretation. In Las Meninas he left us a real treasure: the idea that our mind is a sort of mirror or brush which reflects and creates realities.




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