Fascinating Facts about Three of Velázquez’s Most Famous Paintings

If you are a fan of the works of Diego Velázquez, considered by many the painter of painters, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the information I gathered for this article:

1. Volcan’s Forge (1630)


This is one of the uncommissioned paintings produced by Velázquez right after his first trip to Italy, where he stayed from 1629 to 1631. The painting shows the moment, narrated in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when Apollo, the god of light, shows up at Vulcan’s forge, to tell him that his wife, Venus, the goddess of love, is having an affair with Mars, the god of War. Apollo is identified by the crown of laurel on his head and the orange toga he is wearing. Vulcan, the man on his right, looks horrified and even dangerous. He seems to be working on an armor for Mars himself.

Velázquez had become heavily influenced by Italian art during his trip. This is noticeable in this work by the choice of subject matter – mythology – and by the study of the male nude. However, Velázquez, being the great artist that he was, could not help but add a personal touch to the painting: as we can see, although the bodies replicate in their perfection and athleticism the idealization of the Greek-Roman statuary, the men’s faces look common, contemporary and even ugly. The exaggerated expressions of surprise and shock are a characteristic of the Baroque movement, which did not refrain from showing emotion. There is also an almost comic element to the painting, as it does not seem to treat Mythology with the respect it inspired in other painters. Apollo looks rather full of himself, which you can tell from his posture and body language, such as the curved back and the raised finger.

It’s also worth pointing out that the painting suggests a tri-dimensional perspective: the figure in the background, for example, looks blurred, as if we were actually seeing him from a greater distance. Some of the figures in the painting are displayed in front of others, a technique used to create the illusion of depth. In addition to that, the work suggests a combination of genre painting – the representation of the daily work in a regular forge – with the mythological theme. This kind of combination was rather unusual at the time.

Moreover, some critics claim the painting had the objective of enticing prospective patrons: the artist was perhaps trying to show off his draftsmanship, demonstrating how he could depict the male nude in different positions, in a balanced composition.

2. The Spinners (Las Hilanderas, 1657)


Critics understand this painting as the representation of the fable of Arachne, as told by Ovid in the Metamorphoses. In the story, Arachne was a shepherd’s daughter who developed an extraordinary skill as a weaver. When asked who had taught her how to weave so well, she said she had learned it on her own. This insulted Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the crafts, who showed up as an old woman to give Arachne a chance to apologize and acknowledge that her skill could only have come from the goddess. Arachne refused to do so, which made Athena furious. She reverted to her natural form and set up a contest with Arachne to prove who could weave better.

The story unfolds in two stages in Velázquez’s painting. In the foreground, we see the contest itself, as it takes place. Athena would be the older woman on the left. The fact that she is the goddess is betrayed by the youth and the skin glow of her exposed leg. Her ability is demonstrated not only by the relaxed attitude in which she operates the spinning wheel but also by the speed of the instrument, whose stokes we can hardly see.

Arachne, on the other hand, is seen working furiously on the right, with her back to the viewer. Arachne’s skillful work is also indicated by the speed of her performance – notice that her left hand moves so fast it seems to have 6 fingers! They are assisted by three other women in their work.

The conclusion of the story can be seen in the background of the painting. Arachne’s final work – represented here by a copy of Titian’s The Abduction of Europe – beats Athena’s. Athena, the woman wearing a helmet in the painting, is so angry that she rips Arachne’s work to threads. The goddess is seen here at the moment when she is casting the curse that will turn Arachne into a spider, so she will spend the rest of her life spinning webs. The obvious lesson is humans must not compete with the gods.

Just like in the previous painting we analyzed, Velázquez’s work in Las Hilanderas is a clever combination of genre and mythological themes. The women in the foreground look just like her contemporaries at a weaving workshop. It’s in the background that we have a more explicit reference to the myth, marked both by the presence of Athena is his Greek clothes and by the replication of the mythological work of Titian.

3. The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus, 1647-1651)


This is the only nude study of a woman painted by Velázquez to reach our days. He seems to have painted three, but two of them are lost. This kind of risqué painting was the object of careful surveillance by the Catholic Church during those harsh times of the Spanish Inquisition. Artists who dared to break the rule faced the threat of excommunication.

This painting, which is sometimes called The Rokeby Venus due to the fact that it was in the Morrit Collection at Rokeby Park, shows the goddess who personifies love and beauty lying with the back to the viewer and looking into a mirror held by her son, the god Cupid. The blurred image in the mirror is explained by the fact that ideal beauty cannot be represented.

However, contrary the trend of the times, Venus looks slimmer than the more voluptuous women usually depicted by other painters. She is also a brunette, while most other representations of Venus show her as a blond. These details all seem to indicate a wish to depict just a beautiful Spanish woman of Velázquez’s own days. Besides, the painting does not show any of the other items that characterize the goddess in other paintings, such as myrtle, roses and jewelry. Except for the presence of the winged Cupid holding the mirror, nothing indicates she is the goddess.

It’s interesting to notice how her curvaceous body is echoed by the rounded belly of Cupid and by the folds of the drapery and bed sheets.

Just like in Velázquez’s most famous painting, Las Meninas, which we discussed in a previous blog post (please click here for the post: https://jorgesette.com/2020/03/14/las-meninas-by-velazquez-under-the-magnifying-glass/), the presence of the mirror, and the fact the goddess seems to be looking at us through it, incorporates an element of mystery to the painting. It seems to stimulate a conversation between the work and the viewer, generating a discussion about the dichotomy between art and reality, representation and fact.

This brings us to the end of our blog post. It’s fascinating to discover the facts, the legends and the stories behind famous works of art. If you have further info, opinions or questions about the paintings discussed above, please don’t hesitate to enter your comments in the box below. We would love to share your perspective with our readers.

Jorge Sette


A Brief History of Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merise was born in Milan in 1571 and grew up in a town nearby called Caravaggio, hence his artistic name.

He grew up in times of severe religiosity, brought about by the Counter-Reformation, whose objective was to stop the advance of Protestantism, having Catholics return to a more austere and simpler form of Christianity, based on the cult of Jesus, Mary, the saints and martyrs of earlier times. They tried to accomplish these objectives through repression (the Inquisition) and propaganda (buildings and works of art). The austere values of the Counter-Reformation deeply impregnated and influenced Caravaggio’s paintings.




After a couple of years as an apprentice in Milan, Caravaggio moved to Rome in his early 20s, where, alone, hungry and penniless, he had to compete with a great number of other artists who flocked to what was considered the center of the world to make it as a famous painter. His career really took off when he fell under the protection of a very well-connected patron, Cardinal del Monte, who changed his life.

It didn’t take long for Caravaggio to acquire fame. Boosted by his patron’s connections, his network grew steadily. Endowed with a very original and unique artistic style, he was soon considered the best painter in Italy. He became famous mainly for his dramatic use of light and shadows, in a style known as tenebrism (chiaroscuro), in which he painted biblical, mythological and everyday scenes in a very naturalistic way. The mission of a painter, according to Caravaggio, was to represent real life with all its flaws, ugliness, and occasional beauty.

Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, 1601.

Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, 1601.


Caravaggio, however, had a very difficult personality. Short-tempered and with a violent streak, he was wild. Roaming the mean streets of Rome after nightfall, he would very often get into fights and brawls. He frequented taverns and brothels, always carrying his sword, which was illegal, and he did not hesitate to use it whenever provoked. Those were hard times and he was the object of much jealousy and envy.

Extremely volatile and abrasive, Caravaggio was eventually involved in murder. He got into a fight over a tennis match and ended up killing his opponent. This probably makes him the only great artist ever to commit murder. Banished from Rome, he fled to Naples, where he started a new life and was soon given commissions by important people to paint again.

From there, he moved to Malta, hoping to become one of the famous Knights of Malta, a combination of military and religious order which was formed to defend Christianity against its enemies. Difficult as it was for most people to enter the order, his powerful connections were at work again here and he managed to be accepted. This was meant to be the first step to get him a papal pardon, which would allow him to return to Rome.

Judith beheading Holofernes, 1598/99

Judith beheading Holofernes, 1598/99

However, the circumstances and his harsh personality again hindered his plans. He got in trouble in Malta, and from then on, lived in the run for over 2 years, moving constantly to places such as Syracuse and Palermo in Sicily, and again back to Naples, where more trouble awaited. Finally he seems to have been stricken by a fever and died alone on a beach in Porto Ercole, supposedly on his way back to Rome. His body was never found.

If you are interested in Caravaggio, please check out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

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Jorge Sette






Caravaggio Fun Quiz: how much do you know about the artist?

How much do you know about Caravaggio, the painter? Take the quiz and find out:


Caravaggio's The Fortune Teller

Caravaggio’s The Fortune Teller


  1. Where was he born? a. Rome, b. Naples, c. Milan


  1. What was he like? a. Volatile and abrasive, b. Calm and peaceful, c. Cold and calculating


  1. What kind of painting style is he famous for? a. Romantic, b. Baroque, c. Impressionist


  1. What was the most original trait of his paintings? a. Tenebrism (chiaroscuro), b. Idealization of reality, c. Emulation of the classical models


  1. How did he die? a. Not clear, b. Hanged in Rome, c. Of old age


  1. Was he famous while he was alive? a. Not at all, b. Only after he turned 70, c. Pretty much


  1. Was he ever married? a. Never, b. Twice,  c. Once, but he became a widower soon


  1. Did he have powerful patrons? a. No,   b. Only near his death,  c. Yes, especially Cardinal del Mondo


  1. What’s the historical context he lived in?  a. The Industrial Revolution, b. The Counter-Reformation,   c. The Renaissance


  1. Which one is not a Caravaggio painting: a. The Death of the Virgin, b. Las Meninas,  c. Young Sick Bacchus



Caravaggio's quiz. Answer key.

Answer key


Note: the quiz above is from the ebook: TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: CARAVAGGIO. For further info on the series please CLICK HERE:  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

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Jorge Sette

Caravaggio and the Myth of Medusa

Medusa was a beautiful priestess serving at the temple of Athena. Her beauty attracted a number of suitors, but she had to turn them down, as, according to her vows, she was supposed to remain a virgin.

However, Poseidon, God of the Sea, fell in love with Medusa and appeared to her in the shape of a bird. Being a god, it was easy for him to have his way with the poor maid and sleep with her.

As customary in mythological tales, the victim takes the blame for this sort of incident, and Athena, in a fury, turned Medusa into a horrific monster with the skin of a corpse and poisonous snakes for hair. Besides, anyone who dared to look her in the eyes would immediately turn to stone.

Caravaggio's Medusa

Caravaggio’s Medusa

Perseus, son of Jupiter with the mortal Danae, grew up on the Island of Seriphus. For many years he longed to receive a visit from his father, but it did not happen. His mother would tell him to be patient, as time did not work in the same way for gods.

Danae attracted the attention of Polydectes, king of the island, who tried to force her to marry him. She refused, but the King imposed one condition not to marry her: Perseus must bring him the head of Medusa as a gift.

Perseus, although unprepared and young, did not hesitate to accept the challenge. He knew he had first to find the Grey Sisters, horrible old hags who lived in the forest and shared one eye between them. They kept taking turns at using the eye ball. In a moment of distraction, while one of them was passing the eye to another, Perseus snatched it and told them that he would keep the eye unless they told him where the nymphs lived. The nymphs would tell him where to find Medusa and would give him the necessary weapons to fight her. The old hags acquiesced.

Perseus set out to meet the nymphs, who gave him three weapons: the sword of Jupiter, his father; the shield of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom; and the winged sandals of Hermes, the Messenger of the Olympic Gods. He was also told not to look Medusa in the eye or he’d be turned to stone.

As he approached the lair of the monster, Perseus noticed a number of statues of men scattered in the garden. These were probably men who had tried to get to Medusa before him and were dully petrified. All was rock and desolation around the cave of the monster.

Perseus turned his back to the entrance and walked backwards towards the inner chambers of the cave, looking into the reflection on his polished shield for orientation. This way he would not have to look Medusa in the eyes directly. As he located her, he turned around with his eyes shut and struck her neck with the powerful sword of Jupiter, decapitating the creature.

Using Hermes’ sandals, he flew back to the Island of Seriphus, arriving right at the moment when the wedding between his mother and King Polydectes was about to take place. He shouted: Here’s your gift! And held the head of Medusa in front of the king. The King looked into the eyes of the dead monster and, as a result, was turned immediately to stone. And so Danae was free to go and live with her son again.

Caravaggio’s work, inspired by the myth of Medusa, was painted on an actual shield. It was not meant to be hung, but passed from hand to hand when viewed.

Note: the text above is from the ebook: TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: CARAVAGGIO. For further info on the series please CLICK HERE:  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

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Jorge Sette





Teaching English with Art: Caravaggio

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Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath

Most of you will be familiar with the biblical story of David, the young shepherd boy who offers to defend Israel against the Philistines, their greatest enemy, by battling single-handedly their champion, the giant Goliath, more than 3000 years ago.

The confrontation took place at a valley separating opposing hills, where each army lay. Both armies were in a deadlock as, to reach the enemy, they would have to come down the mountains where they were perching, cross the valley below and climb the opposite hill, thus making themselves vulnerable to the enemy on the higher ground.

David with Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, 1610

David with Head of Goliath by Caravaggio, 1610

Goliath proposed then that the battle should be decided by two warriors alone coming down at the same time from their respective camps and confronting each other at the bottom of the valley.

Nobody on the Israeli camp felt they were up to the challenge. Goliath was, after all, a fully armored giant armed with a spear and a sword, ready for heavy infantry combat. David, however, surprised Saul, the king of Israel at the time, by asking for permission to battle the Philistine himself. David refused the armor and weapons offered by Saul, explaining he was not used to them. He was a shepherd and his successful method for defending his flocks against lions and wolves had always been a simple sling to throw stones.

Both warriors came down. Goliath was expecting a physical fight. David, from a distance, simply put a stone on his sling, rotated it as fast as he could and threw it at the giant, hitting him right in the most vulnerable spot between his eyes. Goliath fell down and David cut his head off with a sword. The Philistines ran away.

Caravaggio was on the run for having killed a man and had been banished from Rome at the time he painted this work. So it seems obvious that he could easily relate to the theme. He was also trying to get an official papal pardon for his crime, and the fact that this painting was given as a gift to Cardinal Borghese, the papal official who could help him with this, seems like a useful strategy to meet his objective.

In the painting, we can identify clearly the main characteristics of the style of the artist, a combination of tenebrism (or chiaroscuro) and naturalism. Such characteristics are: the use of a biblical/mythological theme in which the characters portrayed ara painted from contemporary models; the theatricality and dramatization of the representation (this could be a scene out of a play or a movie); the strategic lighting of the painting, focusing harshly on the subjects and darkening everything else; the brutal realism of he scene.

This painting has been interpreted in many different ways. My favorite interpretation, though,  is the one that says this is a double self-portrait. David would represent the younger Caravaggio, whereas Goliath, the contemporary one. The fact that David does not look like someone who is celebrating a victory, but looks depressed and worried instead, can mean that the older Caravaggio regrets the fact that all the potential he had in his youth for realizing great things was wasted and destroyed by his volatile and abrasive personality. Food for thought.

We will be getting back with more interesting facts about Caravaggio’s stunning paintings in another blog post. Watch this space.

To purchase the available titles of our eBooks series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART:

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3. Teaching English with Art: Caravaggio  http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1mL

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Jorge Sette