The Fable of Arachne

The Fable of Arachne

The Fable of Arachne, also known as Las Hilanderas or The Spinners, is a famous oil painting by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. It was painted circa 1656 for King Philip IV’s huntsman, Don Pedro de Arce (Moffitt, 1985).  Velazquez’s painting, now located in Museo del Prado, the Spanish national art museum, has been described as one of Velazquez’s most enigmatic and, in recent years, one of his most admired paintings (Potter and Stapleford, 1987).  The Fable of Arachne or The Spinners, however, has been subject to many interpretations and this paper aims to both examine and discuss Velazquez’s use of classical sources in his mysterious painting.

Traditionally, it was thought that Velazquez painting The Fable of Arachne portrayed female weavers in the tapestry workshop of Santa Isabel. However, in 1948, Diego Angula observed that the iconography depicted the fable of Arachne described by Ovid in Book VI of his Metamorphoses (Byatt, 1999). Fernando Checa suggests that the painting establishes a “realist” foreground as it poses similarities to some of Velazquez’s other works from Seville (Checa, 2008). This paper, however, argues that both the foreground and the background of Velazquez’s enigmatic painting represent the beginning and the end of Ovid’s classical tale.  It could be suggested that Checa perhaps makes his assertion, that the foreground depicts reality, as some features of The Fable of Arachne’s foreground recall certain aspects of the bodegones Velazquez had previously painted. According to Johnathan Brown however, Velazquez’ painting does represent two different scenes from the classical myth of Arachne described by Ovid in Book VI of his Metamorphoses (Brown, 1986). Moffitt agrees with Brown’s assertion, suggesting that Arachne, a humble craftswoman and Minerva, the mighty goddess, appear both in the foreground and the background of Velazquez’s painting, their presence representing the beginning and the near end of the classical tale told by Ovid (Moffitt, 1989).

In classical mythology Arachne is portrayed as a young Lydian girl who is immensely skilled in the art of weaving. Arachne, however, is boastful of her skill and claims that her talent surpasses that of the goddess Minerva, the Roman incarnation of Pallas Athena, the goddess of arts and crafts (Moffitt, 1989).  In Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses the self-confident Arachne boldly challenges the mighty goddess to a competition in order to show her ability to weave like a goddess. However, by weaving tapestries showing the gods in a negative light Arachne audaciously insults Minerva. One tapestry in particular depicting the rape of Europa, portraying the god Jupiter with a mortal woman, greatly insults Minerva. (Brown, 1986).  When the contest between the goddess and Arachne comes to an end it is proven that the young Lydian girl’s claims were not false and Arachne truly can weave like a goddess. Minerva’s tapestry is rivalled by that of the young Lydian girl’s and it is for Arachne’s arrogant hubris and Minerva’s jealousy of the exceptional quality of Arachne’s finished work that the young Lydian girl is subsequently turned into a spider (Liveley, 2010)

Velazquez’ painting The Fable of Arachne, however, is unique, in that it eschews the conclusion of the classical tale when the transformation of Arachne occurs (Moffitt, 1989). Instead, the foreground of Velazquez’s painting depicts the scene before the weaving contest has begun and in the background of his painting Velazquez represents the end of the contest when, according to Brown, the skills of both Minerva and Arachne are declared of equal merit (Brown, 1986). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses the goddess Minerva takes the shape of an elderly woman. Minerva speaks to Arachne in disguise in order to get her to take back the impudent words she has spoken against the goddess. However Arachne is stubborn and proud and refuses to retract what she has said. Minerva then relinquishes her disguise and reveals her true identity. Arachne, however, is not fearful of the goddess and thus a weaving contest begins between the two (Liveley, 2010). The foreground of Velazquez’s painting depicts a tapestry workshop in which there are five women who are plainly dressed and barefoot. It may be argued that the mighty goddess Minerva is the woman with the distaff positioned to the left.  As in Ovid’s Metamorphoses the mighty goddess is dressed in disguise as an elderly woman, while the young Lydian girl, Arachne, is positioned to the right of the painting with her back to the viewer (Checa, 2008).

One can assume that the young girl sitting to the right of the foreground of Velazquez’s painting is in fact Arachne as Velazquez uses a well-known classical symbol associated with the young Lydian girl. The young spinner’s back is to the viewer however, Velazquez has painted the yarn that she is holding in her hands similar to that of a spider’s web entwined around her fingers. Arachne is often depicted in art and classical mythology with a web held in her hands, not only to symbolize the fact that she was highly skilful in the art of weaving but also because of the nature of the punishment inflicted upon her by the goddess Minerva following the weaving contest (Impelluso and Zuffi, 2003). Arachne, as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, attempted to hang herself following the competition, and Minerva, taking pity on her, transformed the young girl into a spider so that she could continue weaving (Jones, 2007). Perhaps less recognizable in the foreground of Velazquez painting however, is the presence of the goddess herself. It has been suggested that the woman to the left of the foreground sitting at the distaff may be the goddess Minerva in disguise, as the old woman’s leg looks plump and youthful (Martindale, 1990). This argument coincides with Ovid’s myth suggesting that Minerva is disguised as an elderly lady and the contest has not yet begun. The foreground of Velazquez’s painting depicts the scene directly before Minerva abandons her false facade and competes with Arachne in a weaving contest.

In the classical myth, described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, it is Minerva’s jealousy, following the completion of Arachne’s tapestry, which leads her to transform the young Lydian girl into a spider. Thus the background of Velazquez’s The Fable of Arachne, which portrays the scene directly before Arachne is transformed, can be viewed as the most important section of the painting when discussing Velazquez’s use of classical sources. It is important to note however, before examining the background, that the dimensions of the original painting, according to Potter and Stapleford, were 169cm high by 250cm wide and four extra strips of canvas were added at a much later date which increase the scale of  Velazquez’s painting (Potter and Stapleford, 1987). It is possible, that the canvas may have been damaged during the fire which took place at the Alcázar, the royal palace in Seville, in the year 1734 and as a result it was restored with extra pieces of canvas added. Johnathon Brown argues that the distortions of the scale of the painting diminish the importance of the background which, when discussing Velazquez’s use of the classical myth, is the focus of the entire painting (Brown, 1986). By removing the four added strips one strengthens the centripetal pull toward the background which portrays the classical myth (Potter and Stapleford, 1987).

In contrast to the dark or sublunary foreground, a brightly lit alcove, illuminated by sunlight streaming in from the upper left hand corner of the canvas, comprises the background of Velazquez’s enigmatic painting (Moffitt, 1985).

In the brightly lit alcove five women stand before a tapestry which almost completely covers the far wall. One of the women is pointing to the tapestry while another, wearing a helmet and breastplate, raises her arm in front of her. The scene that Velazquez has chosen to represent is that of the end of the contest between Arachne and Minerva (Brown, 1986). Arachne points to her completed tapestry while Minerva raises her hand in order to transform the disobedient Lydian girl into a spider (Checa, 2008). It is apparent that it is in fact Minerva in the background of the painting as Velazquez portrays the mighty goddess, as she is often depicted in art and classical mythology, wearing a helmet, shield and breastplate. Another indication that it is in fact Minerva in Velazquez’s painting is the presence of the owl which can be seen flying above her. The owl often accompanies Minerva, goddess of wisdom, arts and crafts in Roman mythology, as the owl itself is the symbol of wisdom. Arachne, standing to the right of Minerva, is also depicted as she often would be in art and classical mythology. Her arms are outstretched towards her tapestry as the young, boastful girl can now proudly display her faultless work (Impelluso and Zuffi, 2003).

In Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses the skilful young Lydian girl, Arachne, created tapestries which depicted the many immoral acts carried out by the unscrupulous gods. Her tapestries portrayed the gods in a negative light, shown were scenes of deception and also the rape of humans. The goddess Minerva, however, created tapestries highlighting the majesty of the gods and how the gods always have human interest at heart. However, the smaller scenes situated in the corners of Minerva’s tapestries depicted the punishment of ill-behaved mortals by the gods, subsequently highlighting human inferiority (Roman, 2010). One of the tapestries created by Arachne illustrated the rape of Europa (Checa, 2008). In Velazquez’s The Fable of Arachne the tapestry hanging on the far wall of the brightly lit alcove situated in the background of the painting is a copy of a work by the Italian artist Titian which depicts the classical myth of the rape of Europa by Jupiter; it is essentially a painting within a painting. The Rape of Europa, originally painted by the 16th Century Italian artist Titian, portrays the deception and abduction of Europa by the god Jupiter. Disguised as a bull, Jupiter tricked Europa into climbing onto his back and she was subsequently abducted by him (Jones, 2007). According to Johnathan Brown, Velazquez’s insertion of Titian’s painting is highly significant in the context of classical myth of Arachne and Minerva (Brown, 1986).

Titian is described as one of the greatest Venetian artists of the 16th Century and in the year 1590 art theorist Giovanni Lomazzo declared him to be the sun amidst small stars, stating that he was not only the greatest artist in Italy but that he rivalled all the painters of the world (Kuiper, 2009). Velazquez, by inserting a quotation of Titian’s famous work as Arachne’s finished tapestry, equates Titian with the remarkably skilled Lydian girl. Also, as Arachne had the ability to weave like a goddess, Velazquez is perhaps suggesting that Titian could paint like a god (Brown, 1986). It is Titian’s painting presented as Arachne’s tapestry which rivals that of the goddess Minerva’s divine creation, thus Velazquez places Titian upon a godlike pedestal. However, it has been suggested that Velazquez, by inserting Titian’s famous work into his own painting, seeks to surpass the renowned Renaissance artist in his ability (Brown, 1986). Perhaps Velazquez is proposing that although Titian has the ability to outdo the gods, Velazquez himself has the ability to exceed Titian in his artistic skill. Jan Baptists Bedaux states that the classical myth of the dispute between Arachne and Minerva, which Velazquez depicts in his painting, is the archetypal tale of artistic rivalry. He suggests that the myth provides us with an exemplary lesson about a person who although very learned in their art will soon be followed by another who will excel the first artist in their abilities (Bedaux, 1992). Therefore it seems that while Minerva was challenged by Arachne so too is the “divine” Titian being challenged by Velazquez. Thus the painting itself could be viewed as an allegory for the progress of art; an interpretation previously made by Perez de Moya in his Filoso fia Secreta in the year1584 (Moffitt, 1989). However, this is only one interpretation of Velazquez’s mysterious painting amidst many.

The main purpose of this paper was to both highlight and examine Velazquez’s use of classical sources in his enigmatic painting The Fable of Arachne. It is clear that Velazquez’s work has been the subject of numerous analyses and interpretations. However, whether Velazquez intended the foreground of The Fable of Arachne to represent reality or not, it is certain that the background of his painting is an effective and an almost accurate depiction of the near end of the myth of Arachne and Minerva described by Ovid in Book VI of his Metamorphoses. Velazquez’s has carefully painted the main subjects of the myth as they are often portrayed successfully drawing from Greek and Roman literature and art. One thing that is certain about The Fable of Arachne is that the classical influences evident in Velazquez’s truly puzzling and mysterious painting will, in the future, be subject to furthermore analysis.


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Roman, L. Roman, M. Encyclopaedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, Facts on File, 2010. Print.


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