Through the looking-glass: how a mirror explains the secrets of a masterpiece

After more than three centuries of speculation, researchers have at last unlocked the secrets of one of the world's most mysterious paintings. And in the greatest tradition of all illusionist puzzles, it was all done with a mirror.

A biblical scholar, Professor Philip Esler of St Andrews University, and the Amsterdam-based artist Jane Boyd worked together for five years to shed light Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, which was completed by the Spanish master Diego Velázquez when he was just 19. The 17th-century work hangs in the National Gallery in London, where it is classed as a "puzzling painting".

Professor Esler said: "Our idea is that Velázquez would have had a very small studio [at that time] and he created this painting by putting a mirror on the wall then stood behind his model who was facing the mirror.

"He painted her reflection which explains certain anomalies in the work, such as the girl's dress buttons being the wrong way round and the perspective of the edge of the table being all wrong. He must also have stuck a painting of Mary and Martha by another artist on the wall behind him and painted its mirror reflection. That's why Jesus in that painting is holding up his left hand rather than his right, which was the convention of the time."

The story in Luke 10 of Christ visiting Martha and Mary and rebuking Martha for fussing about her housekeeping, is shown in the background, while an unhappy servant girl appears to be being rebuked by her elder in the foreground.

For generations, experts have argued over the meaning of the work, how it was created and, in particular, why Christ in the background and a servant is centre-stage. Art historians have long wondered what - if any - link the artist was making between Christ, the servant and the viewer. And why is Christ raising his left hand to Martha, a breach of 17th- century Spanish custom?

In working out how the painting was created, Professor Esler and Ms Boyd reconstructed the artist's studio and, using computer animation, deduced that Velázquez must have used a mirror. Ms Boyd said: "It was a bit of a eureka moment when we managed to work out how he had done it.

"Since the model was facing the mirror she was able to hold the disconsolate expression on her face, which is very difficult for a sitter to do if she cannot see herself. Our solution also works in the dimensions of the small studio you would expect for such a young artist."

Ms Boyd, who has lectured in fine art practice for many years, said previous suggestions that Velázquez had used mirrors implied the painter's studio must have been vast, but that did not make any sense because he was only a teenage student at the time.

Professor Esler said they had also come up with a new interpretation about how the figures in the foreground of the painting are related to the inset scene. "The all-important relationship between the foreground and background scenes illustrates just how much of a subversive Velázquez was," he said.

"The young woman in the foreground with a sad look is not from the biblical past but is a contemporary of Velázquez who is very unhappy about her state as a servant girl.

"As she reflects upon her position she has an old woman on her right telling her to get on with things, and on her left she has a mental image of a biblical narrative in which Jesus actually devalued the work of someone like her.

"She is illustrative of the human underside of this biblical narrative, which is rather subversive for this period of time. He is subtly criticising the Bible in this work, which in Spain of the 17th century was a dangerous thing to do."

Velazquez, considered to be one of the world's greatest painters, was born in 1599 and died in 1666. After Martha and Mary he went on to become court painter to Philip IV of Spain and is credited with being an influence on the work of later artists such as Goya and Manet.

Velázquez later portrayed himself reflected in a mirror in one of his most famous paintings, Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour), which is now in the Prado museum, Madrid. Like Martha and Mary, Las Meninas has been the subject of endless speculation and analysis.

Professor Esler has written a book with Ms Boyd, Visuality and Biblical Text: Interpreting Velázquez: Christ with Martha and Mary as a Test Case, detailing their findings.

Newcastle players celebrate, Mario Balotelli scores, Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers
footballNewcastle vs Liverpool , Arsenal vs Burnley, Chelsea vs QPR and Everton vs Swansea
i100Amazing Amazon review bomb
Arts and Entertainment
The Spice Girls' feminism consisted of shouting 'girl power' and doing peace signs in latex catsuits
musicWhat is it? You know what you want it to be...
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
Moss and Grimshaw arrive at the party
peopleKate Moss, Claudia Schiffer and Nick Grimshaw at Jonathan Ross's Halloween party
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
travelPurrrfect jet comes to Europe
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch attends the London premiere of his new film The Imitation Game
people He's not as smart as his characters
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities