What do you see in this painting?
What is the young black maid – sometimes referred to as a ‘Moorish maid’ – doing?
What do you think is her cultural or religious background?
The maid is bent over her kitchen table, where her work is done. She has helped prepare the meal. There are her pots and pans. However her mind and attention is elsewhere. She has her head turned and is focussed on what is happening behind her. We get the impression she is discretely listening to what is being said behind her.
This is Velazquez’s fascinating painting Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (1618) on display in Dublin at the National Gallery of Ireland. It is a deep and slightly solemn painting.
We see the maid, separate from the supper itself. She in fact is in the foreground, the light shines on her. Looking at the painting we see her first and then only as we look more carefully do we see Christ and the man at the table, visible through the kitchen hatch. The maid’s table is bare. Her work, the meal, has been taken to the dining room behind. There is a sense of unity about the painting. The maid intently listens to the words being spoken over her hand work, the words of blessing are said over what she has produced. She is curious, not distressed, she is quite intent on listening to what is being said and appears content in her work.
She, perhaps of a different culture or religion to those whom she serves, has prepared the bread which is broken. The bread which is the means by which Christ is revealed. She is in a real way part of the supper and part of the time of revelation, though in a different room. She hears her bread being blessed and hears of it becoming a source of wonder.
We are left thinking what her reaction was, how things later developed for her.