It doesn’t seem so mysterious at first glance. In the centre of the composition is Margaret Theresa, the five-year-old infanta and the only surviving child of King Philip IV and his new young queen Mariana. (Margaret later became Holy Roman Empress, only to die at 21.) Framing her are two ladies-in-waiting, the meninas of the title, and to the right is a pair of dwarves and a dog. To the left is none other than Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, who by 1656 had become palace chamberlain – a major honour in an age when painting was still seen as a craft, not one of the fine arts. We are not in his studio, but in a royal chamber lined with other artists’ paintings Velázquez has, rather arrogantly, depicted in shadow.
So at first glance Las Meninas is a portrait of the infanta. But it’s not so simple. Nothing, you figure out quickly, is simple with Las Meninas.
First of all, the infanta is facing the wrong...