As we've been studying this week, Veláquez liked complex compositions and he used to represent the nain scene in the background and a secondary scene in the foreground. So he did in The Fable of Arachne, also known as The Spinners: the scene in the background refers to Arachne's myth and the scene in the foreground represents a workshop, where some spinners are working, but things are still more complex. Here you have a more detailed explanation of the painting:
The whole scene appears to happen in the workshop of the Royal Factory of Tapestry of Santa Isabel, where some spinners are working and some others are visiting the factory and observing a tapestry, where the myth of Arachne is represented. But this is what Velázquez painted:
- The main scene is in the background, where we can see Athena, with her helmet, punishing Arachne. This one was a young girl from Lydia, very skilled in the art of weaving, who defied Athena to a contest. Arachne wove a tapestry representing the rape of the nymph Europa by Zeus, Athena's father. Zeus transformed himself into a bull to possess Europa. Athena became very angry with Arachne's audacity and punished her, transforming her into a spider, and sentencing her to weave forever. On the painting we can see Athena punishing Arachne. The two women are not clients, but the two Lydians who witnessed the moment. The tapestry in the background is a copy of The Rape of Europa, by Rubens, who had copied it from Titian
The Rape of Europa, by Rubens (1629)
The Rape of Europa, by Titian (1562)
- The scene in the foreground also belongs to the myth: it represents the moment of the contest. Athena is the woman who is spinning at the wheel and Arachne is the young lady who is winding the wool. We can observe a pentimento in the head of the young girl to the right.
Scholars think that with this painting Velázquez wanted to prove the nobility of painting and he also wanted to show how skilled he was, comparing his painting with masters like Titian and Rubens.
This painting was painted for Pedro de Arce, the royal huntsman, and suffered damage during the fire in the Alcázar in 1734. Some parts were burnt and the painting had to be reduced in height and width. The painting we can admire now is smaller than the original one.