Velázquez’s Las Meninas: A detail that decodes a masterpiece

However bizarre it may seem, consuming búcaro clay to alter one’s pigmentation was less dangerous than some contemporary alternatives to skin lightening, such as smearing one’s face with Venetian ceruse (a topical paste made from lead, vinegar and water) which resulted in blood poisoning, hair loss, and death. That’s not to say the ingestion of búcaro clay wasn’t without its own unpredictable reactions, including a perilous depletion of red blood cells, paralysis of muscles, and the destruction of one’s liver. It also triggered hallucinations. According to the well-known autobiography of a contemporary female painter and mystic, Estefanía de la Encarnación, published in Madrid in 1631, an addiction to snacking on búcaros resulted not only in a death-in-lifeless of pallor but heightened spiritual awareness. Though she laments that it took her “a full year” to “rid me of this vice”, the narcotic effect nevertheless unleashed visions that enabled her “to see God more clearly”.

When we map the physiological and psychotropic effects of búcaro dependency on to the perennial puzzle of Las Meninas, the painting takes on a new and perhaps even eerier complexion. As the epicentre of the canvas’s enigmatic action, the altered and altering consciousness of the Infanta, whose fingers are wrapped around the búcaro (has she just taken a nibble?), suddenly expands to the mindset of the painting. Look closely and we can see that Velázquez’s brush is pointing directly at a pigment splotch of the same intense pulsating red on his palette as that from which the búcaro has been magicked into being. As spookily peaky in pallor as a genie conjured from a bottle, the Infanta appears too to levitate from the floor – an effect delicately achieved by the subtle shadow that the artist has subliminally inserted beneath the parachute-like dome of her billowing crinoline dress. Even the Infanta’s parents, whose images hover directly above the lips of the búcaro, begin to appear more like holographic spirits projected from another dimension than mere reflections in a mirror.

Suddenly, we see Las Meninas for what it is – not just a snapshot of a moment in time, but a soulful meditation on the evanescence of the material world and the inevitable evaporation of self. Over the course of his nearly four decades of service to the court, Velásquez witnessed the gradual diminishment of Philip IV’s dominion. The world was slipping away. The crumbly búcaro, a dissoluble trophy of colonial exploits and dwindling imperial power that has the power to reveal realms that lie beyond, is the perfect symbol of that diminuendo and the letting go of the mirage of now. The búcaro ingeniously anchors the woozy scene while at the same time is directly implicated in its wooziness. Simultaneously physical, psychological, and spiritual in its symbolic implications, the búcaro is a keyhole through which the deepest meaning of Velázquez’s masterpiece can be glimpsed and unlocked.

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