Once upon a time being a spinster wasn’t such a big deal. If anything, it was a nod of approval to one’s skill, for it meant being a young, unmarried woman, talented in the art of weaving and spinning. As time passed by, that meaning morphed into something else entirely, denouncing the marital status of single, older women, while disregarding their abilities.
Diego Velázquez’s The Spinners takes us back to the 17th century when women were still very much involved in weaving, and adds a mythological dimension to this traditional craft. Inspired by the fable of Arachne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Spaniard visually retells the story of the contest between Athena (Minerva in Roman mythology), the Greek goddess of wisdom, crafts and warfare and Arachne, a young mortal woman, talented in the art of weaving, but too proud for her own good. According to the story, Arachne was so sure of her unmeasured skill that she boasted she was better than anyone else, even more talented than the goddess of crafts herself. Hearing about the girl’s arrogance, Athena came to Arachne’s workshop disguised as an old woman, and once she heard the mortal repeat her claims, the goddess challenged her to a contest.
Velázquez arranged the whole composition like a theatre scene, with the weavers in the foreground, and Arachne’s work of art in the backroom. There is even an orange-red curtain, to the left, emphasizing the theatrics and importance of this event. In the front, our gaze is guided from Athena, the old woman spinning with a distaff, to Arachne, in white, with her back turned to us. It’s interesting how the Spaniard doesn’t reveal Arachne’s face, as if to say that looks aren’t important – it is her sheer talent that matters here. And it’s true, Arachne’s tapestry steals the spotlight, imposing its presence like an altarpiece in this whole setup. The light flooding the backroom reaches the girl diagonally, envelops her and establishes a stronger connection between the artist and her art. The contrast between Athena’s shadowy appearance and the brilliance shining on Arachne could very well be a metaphor for the goddess being eclipsed in mastery by a mortal.
But let’s get back to the myth, shall we? Athena went first. Her weaving patterns masterfully illustrated the genesis of the gods, their almighty powers and, most importantly, the cruel fate that awaited mortals who dared to consider themselves equal or superior to the gods. Instead of taking this as a cue to ask for forgiveness, Arachne, all fired up, in turn depicted stories that revealed the depravity of the gods and the extent to which they were willing to go to satisfy their most basic urges with mortal women, often times through rape. Most of her attention was focused on Zeus, Athena’s father, but Poseidon, Apollo and Dionysus were shown too, all transforming themselves into various animals in order to sleep with women. As breathtakingly skillful as Arachne was, the audacity to depict such scenes was unparalleled.
The tapestry in the background reveals Europa’s abduction by Zeus, after having taken the shape of a white bull, as it was envisioned by Titian in The Rape of Europa. Titian’s original had been faithfully copied by Peter Paul Rubens, and it is that copy that Velázquez displays here as proof of Arachne’s mastery. A copy of a copy, if you may.
Enraged and humiliated by both the brazenness and the unmatched skill of the girl, Athena hit her and tore her works to threads. Arachne suddenly realized the mistake that she had made, ran away and tried to hang herself, distressed that she would never be able to weave again. Somehow, the goddess still took pity on this foolish mortal and turned her into a spider that would spend all its days endlessly spinning and weaving.
At first glance, it seems that the two women in front of the tapestry are part of Rubens’ artwork. Velázquez, however, depicted five women standing in the alcove. What the Spaniard wanted was to show Athena and Arachne once again, later in time, towards the end of the story, when Arachne is about to be turned into a spider. The pair is right in the center, with Athena no longer an old woman, but revealing her goddess appearance. She is wearing a shield, helmet and breastplate, as she was often depicted in art and mythology. With this in mind, we now know that the light doesn’t just link Arachne to her art, but it offers a glimpse into her inescapable fate.
The story and the painting reveal humans’ deep desire to create. Through their craftsmanship, artists attain a godlike ability, taking on the role of creators in fashioning new worlds. Yet, in spite of all that, they remain mere mortals who cannot avoid death. All they can hope for is to leave behind a trace of themselves that will preserve the memory of their presence – even if it’s something as delicate as a spider’s web.
Next time: Having a ball!