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.

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