Who was the little girl from Las Meninas?
She is the illuminated center of one of the most acclaimed and recognizable group portraits in the world. Beautifully dressed in a silver and black dress with wide hips adorned with rosettes and ribbons – the pinnacle of fashion in the 17th century of the Spanish Golden Age – a little girl gazes at the onlookers with a calm and confident expression well at the beyond his years. This little girl, a delicate Spanish princess, would become a stubborn German Empress. Little is known of his tragically short life, as art historians often overlook the main subject of Diego Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece. The Meninas and instead focus on its techniques and symbolism. She was the Infanta Margarita (Margaret) Teresa of Spain (1651-1673), and she was the only daughter of Philip IV of Spain and his second wife, Marianna of Austria.
Margarita’s marriage to Leopold I of Austria, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1666 was one of the greatest celebrations of the European Baroque era, although many who had taken note of the disastrous results of past Spanish-Habsburg alliances and Austro-Habsburg would not. I saw no reason to celebrate. Leopold was his young bride’s maternal uncle by blood, and his demand that she even call him “uncle” is a particularly troubling aspect of their relationship from an outsider’s perspective. The couple got along well, sharing musical and artistic tastes. They produced four children, although only one survived infancy.
As described by William O. McCogg, Jr., Margarita blamed the deaths of her children on the presence of Jews in Austria, believing that God was punishing her for allowing them to live in her adopted kingdom. She begged her uncle-husband to drive them out of Vienna, the capital. Of course, Margarita was not the first Spanish princess to make such a request of her husband. In 1497 Isabella of Aragon, the eldest daughter of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, refused to marry Manuel I of Portugal unless he first expelled all Jewish residents from his country.
As historian Stephen Haliczer recounts, “Ferdinand and Isabella issued perhaps the most famous – or infamous – document of their reign: the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews. This decree ordered the departure within three months of all Jews residing in their dominions, stipulating that Jews were not to return under pain of the most severe penalty.
The Catholic faith organized the worldview of Spanish royalty for generations, and it became particularly ingrained in its daughters, who took inspiration from their notorious ancestor Isabella I, the mastermind behind the Spanish Inquisition. For Margarita, devotion to her religion was not just her life’s credo, but her psychological compass. He governed and dictated his thoughts and actions. She believed that heresy in Austria – embodied in the Jewish people – had killed her children. His anti-Jewish sentiments were supported by the town’s Christian merchants, McGogg notes, making it all the more pressing for Leopold to honor his demands. During the Corpus Christi festival of 1670, he ordered the expulsion from Vienna of all but the wealthiest Jewish residents and called for the destruction of their synagogue.
It was a romantic gesture – by the standards of this dogmatic family – but ultimately unnecessary. Margarita would soon join her children in the grave. Centuries of Habsburg inbreeding had left her with a weak constitution ill-equipped for the trauma of successive pregnancies. As genetic researchers Gonzalo Álvarez and Francisco C. Ceballos point out, “Due to persistent inbreeding over generations, a number of Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs exhibited extremely high inbreeding coefficients.”
Margarita’s own parents were uncle and niece by blood, and their other offspring (Margarita’s younger brother) would become the famously ill and physically handicapped Charles II of Spain, who earned the unfortunate nickname “The Bewitched” (El Hechizado) thanks to its appearance. Margarita was healthier, but genetics were against her. She died on March 12, 1673, mortally weakened by a failed sixth pregnancy. She was only twenty-one.
From a historical point of view, it is fortunate that Velázquez immortalized Margarita in The Meninasor its fate might have been that of a footnote in European history textbooks. The Meninas now hangs in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, the subject of much scrutiny by art historians. Despite her hard heart, which puts her reputation in dark territory, viewers of this painting and the many additional portraits Velázquez painted of her can do this unlucky princess the small kindness to know and remember her name: Margarita Theresa.
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By: Amy M. Schmitter
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 54, no. 3 (summer 1996), p. 255–268
Wiley on behalf of the American Society for Aesthetics
By: Stephen H. Haliczer
The American Historical Review, Vol. 78, no. 1 (February 1973), p. 35–62
Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
By: Gonzalo Alvarez and Francisco C. Ceballos
Human heredity, vol. 80, No. 2 (2015), p. 62–68
S. Karger SA
By: Eric Young
The Burlington Magazine, vol. 126, no. 977 (August 1984), p. 488–493
Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.
By: Svetlana Alpers
Representations, n° 1 (February 1983), p. 30 to 42
University of California Press