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The Theology of Painting: Picturing Philosophy in Velázquez's Las Meninas

From: The Comparatist
Volume 37, May 2013
pp. 156-168 | 10.1353/com.2013.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Theology of Painting:
Picturing Philosophy in Velázquez's Las Meninas

Theory has often been regarded in early modern studies as an irresponsible guest at best, and, at worst, an unwelcome intruder. While early modern cultural production has served theorists well as they explore their own projects, theory is sometimes ungrounded in historical specificity. Though early modern art history has been especially resistant to theory, strong theoretical voices have emerged, including Svetlana Alpers, Mieke Bal, Michael Fried, Hanneke Grootenboer, Maria Loh, Lyle Massey, and Itay Sapir. Not all of them employ theory explicitly, but their approaches indicate a strong theoretical subculture in art history that successfully navigates the terrain between history and theory. These critics show that the best theory is historically grounded, and can tell us much about how works are inherently theoretical, philosophical, theological, or theo-philosophical in their historical context. Part of what I hope to demonstrate in this essay is that traditional art history and more theoretical approaches are complementary, despite the obvious antagonism between them. Just as traditional art historical concerns (such as provenance, patronage, and influence) are essential to a responsible theoretical interpretation of an image, theory—even "high" or French theory, particularly reviled by traditionalists—can illuminate aspects (such as philosophical ones, as I will argue here) that traditional methodologies might ignore.

James Elkins has articulated the divide between art history and aesthetics, concluding that art history ultimately does not ask the same questions as aesthetics does, nor does it even see the same issues as questions (48). Similarly, Jorge J. E. Gracia argues that "[o]ne of the greatest sources of misunderstanding concerning interpretation is the belief that all interpretations have, or should have, the same aim" (158). The problem goes even further than that, since the questions and approaches are often not as purely parsed as the different disciplines maintain. Gracia explains that not only do interpreters rarely only pursue one kind of interpretation but they are often also vague about what their aims are. Some interpretations seek the "meaning" of an object, which could be conceived variously: significance, reference, intention, ideas, and use. Other interpretations are "relational" in that their goal is to understand the relation of an object, or its meaning, to something [End Page 156] else (165). In the antagonism between art historical and philosophical interpretations, I maintain that we can find some common ground in acknowledging that: (1) both camps engage in relational as well as meaning interpretations; (2) what constitutes a relation or how meaning is defined often differ; and (3) these differences of approach do not invalidate each one or make combination unproductive, but the contrary.

The question that I wish to address in this essay, then, is how a philosophically-driven, theoretical methodology, such as that employed by Michel Foucault, might attune us to ways in which art enacts philosophy as part of its meaning—not anachronistically, but in a manner consonant with its historical moment in relation to contemporary discourses. As W. J. T. Mitchell argues in his book Picture Theory, "there are no 'purely' visual or verbal arts"; "all media are 'mixed media'" (5). Mitchell's goal is not to develop a "'picture theory' (much less a theory of pictures), but to picture theory as a practical activity in the formation of representations" (6). Mieke Bal proposes that if "visual art makes any sense at all beyond the narrow domain of beauty and the affective domain of pleasure, it is because art, too, thinks; it is thought. Not the thought about it, or the thought expressed in it, but visual thought, the thought embodied in form" (117). I would like to ask what it might mean to picture philosophy or theology by looking at the case of Diego Velázquez and the reception of his most famous work, Las Meninas (1656).

Perhaps no more ink needs to be spilt on Las Meninas, but much of what has been written about it in the last thirty-five years dramatizes the issue at hand and provides an interesting case study. If art can picture theory and embody thought, then it certainly can perform the operations of theory, philosophy, and theology. When...