Minerva, goddess of weavers, Had heard too much of Arachne. She had heard That the weaving of Arachne Equalled her own, or surpassed it.
Arachne was just a poor girl, but her artistry had brought her fame.
The nymphs came down from the vines on Tmolus
As butterflies to a garden, to flock stunned
Around what flowered out of the warp and the weft
Under her fingers.
They did not merely admire Arachne’s creations but also loved to watch her working. The process moved them as much as the outcome.
A grace like Minerva’s, unearthly, Moved her hands whether she bundled the fleeces Or teased out the wool, like cirrus, Or spun the yarn, or finally Conjured her images into their places ...
Surely Minerva (a.k.a. Athena) had taught or inspired her. Arachne scoffed at this idea, claiming that she deserved sole credit for her own art. She openly challenged Minerva to a weaving competition. Minerva duly arrived, disguised as an old mortal woman, and lectured Arachne about giving proper credit to the gods. This speech threw Arachne into a rage.
As she spat at her: “Your brain totters
Like your decrepit body.
You have lived too long.
If you possess daughters or granddaughters
Waste your babble on them.
I am not such a fool
To be frightened by an owl-face and a few screeches.
I make up my own mind,
And I think as I always did.
If the goddess dare practise what she preaches
Why doesn’t she take up my challenge?
Why doesn’t she come for a contest?”
Hearing these words, Minerva abandoned her costume and seemed to grow twice as tall. Everyone was terrified except Arachne, who set about weaving. The competitors worked intently, each hardly aware of the other. Minerva wove an illustration of her own authority, depicting herself as the founder of the city of Athens and the just punisher of various mortals. Arachne vividly and sympathetically depicted a series of women raped by male gods–examples of domination rather than authority.
Arachne’s tapestry was perfect. Minerva could find no fault in it, which enraged her. The goddess tore it to shreds and began beating Arachne with her spindle. Unable to stand the pain, Arachne tried to hang herself. “Pity touched Minerva” and she chose to spare Arachne from her rightful fate. Minerva transformed the girl into a spider, working this magic of transformation skillfully, one stage at a time. From then on, Arachne spun and wove perpetually and (I assume) compulsively, “her touches / Deft and swift and light as when they were human.”
In 1560-62, Titian painted The Rape of Europa, which now hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. Like the first scene in the tapestry that Arachne wove to defeat Minerva,
It showed Europa crying from out at sea stride the bull that had deceived her. The high god Jupiter, in his bull form, Carrying her off— And glistening with effort. You could see her feet recoiling From the swipe of the waves through which he heaved.
Titian added plump winged babies and an Adriatic coast in the background. By the 17th century, this work was in the royal collection in Madrid, where Peter Paul Rubens copied it while Diego Velazquez watched him.
Perhaps Velazquez thought: I am better than Titian and I don’t have to copy his works like Rubens does. My genius is my own. Perhaps that thought struck him with irony or even self-mockery, because he knew what he owed to his predecessors.
Velazquez owned translations of Ovid’s text in which the stories of Arachne and Europa were told. Perhaps he sympathized with Arachne, the artist who had sympathetically portrayed Europa. Or perhaps he recognized her arrogance in himself.
Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) by Velazquez (1655-1660, Museo Nacional del Prado) shows five women in contemporary clothes, plus a cat. They are weaving, spinning, collecting textile fragments, or watching others at these activities. As A.S. Byatt (1999) notes, the painting depicts light playing on many kinds of fabric, including fine filaments that behave like spiderwebs.
Behind these women, and two steps above them, is what first appears to be a single scene populated by noblewomen or mythological figures, including two flying putti and one woman in a resplendent helmet. Closer inspection distinguishes the background, which is a portion of Titian’s Rape of Europa (mainly the sky, with Europa herself hardly visible to the right), from a stage-like area that supports five women in fancy clothes who are boldly illuminated by sunlight from the left.
Like Las Meninas (painted at about the same time and now shown in a neighboring room), this is an enigmatic picture that may have been contrived to support several literal interpretations. One possibility is that the scene on the stage is the story of Arachne, with Athena in the helmet and Arachne standing before her own tapestry, which looks just like Titian’s Rape of Europa. Paintings were sometimes reproduced as tapestries by artisans who had less prestige and were seen as less creative than the original painters. In this case, Velazquez would have pretended to copy an imaginary woven copy of a real painting that he had watched Rubens actually copy in oil. (Today, that copy is displayed in the same room as The Spinners.)
The women in the foreground could just be ordinary workers, shown for contrast. Or they, too, could be figures from the Arachne story. Minerva could be the older lady on the left, shown before she sheds her costume. The steps might separate two episodes from the same story.
The working spinners are arranged in a way that resembles the goddesses and nymphs in Titian’s Diana and Callisto, another painting that Velazquez had watched Rubens copy in Spain (Alpers 2005). One possibility is that Velazquez’ depiction of the spinners is sexually suggestive (Bird 2007), alluding to Titian’s naked nymphs. Or perhaps the main suggestion is that one character is a goddess in disguise.
Evidently, this is a painting about art, coming after the apex of straightforward narrative painting represented by Titian. It is about whether artists are original or derivative–an explicit question in Ovid’s presentation of the Arachne myth. It is about sympathy or empathy for women confronted by unlimited power: male gods who commit rape and a goddess who tortures her victims. It may also be a demonstration of Velazquez’ superiority–as a male court painter–over female artisans. It is about the ability to represent the current physical world, imaginary pasts, and previous representations. It is about the relationship between written stories that unfold in time and three-dimensional space as captured on a flat plane. It is about comparison, assessment, and competition. It is about Velazquez–in a way that would be hard to imagine happening a century earlier.
Selections from Ovid as loosely (but brilliantly) translated by Ted Hughes. Secondary sources: Svetlana Alpers, The Vexations of Art: Velázquez and Others *New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) Wendy Bird, “The Bobbin & The Distaff: Erotic Imagery and the Meaning of Velazquez’s ‘Las Hilanderas’,” Apollo, vol. 166, no. 548, Nov. 2007, pp. 58; A.S. Byatt, “Arachne,” The Threepenny Review, no. 78 (1999): 20–23. See also: Las Meninas and mirrors, was Velazquez left-handed?, Goya’s Familia del infante Don Luis; an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto); etc.