There is no doubt that some of the most charming paintings in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna are the series of portraits of the Spanish Infanta Margarita Teresa (1651-1673) by Diego Velazquez. This is the same little girl that we see in what is probably Velazquez’s most famous work, Las Maninas, in the Prado in Madrid. The portraits come at intervals of just a few years. They were done at the Spanish Habsburg court and were sent, as gifts, to the Austrian Habsburgs in Vienna. The Austrian Emperor was, in fact, the grandfather of the small princess, as his daughter Mariana had married Philip IV of Spain.
Who was the golden-haired, angelic-looking girl in Velazquez’s portraits? Her father Philip IV of Spain had married Mariana of Austria, his niece, who had been initially intended for Philip’s son from his first marriage. After the boy died, Philip, already a widower, thought that it would be a good idea to marry his much younger niece himself. Philip and Mariana had two children – the future Emperor Charles II of Spain and Margarita Teresa, the girl immortalized by Velazquez. Not surprisingly, Charles II had a whole list of illnesses as a direct result of centuries of inbreeding. The poor man, mentally and physically infirm, left no children and was the last of the line of the Spanish Habsburgs.
Unlike her brother who looks positively deformed in his portraits, Margarita Teresa was lucky as she was physically unaffected and was, in fact, extremely pretty. In what looks very much like a case of pushing one’s luck, she married her uncle, Leopold I of Austria. This is a reminder of the functions of the portraits of Spanish Infantas. While some of the portraits were meant to be viewed by teary-eyed grandparents, others were meant for prospective suitors.
In fact, the official portraits of Spanish Infantas used in wedding negotiations would almost inevitably include the Spanish wig, usually adorned with ribbons. Wigs were, of course, very common in seventeenth-century Europe. The Spanish variety, however, was an item of extraordinary ugliness and nobody’s natural beauty could have survived such an adornment. Fortunately for Margarita Teresa, none of her portraits show her with such a wig.
In the same room at the Kunsthistorisches, though, there is another portrait by Velazquez – of Maria Teresa, the half-sister of Margarita Teresa, who became Queen of France by marrying Louis XIV. It is odd to think that Maria Teresa’s portrait with the horrible wig could have been meant to lure any man. One can imagine rather Louis looking with no small sense of urgency for a mistress immediately upon setting eyes on the portrait of his future wife.
As for Margarita Teresa, she died at twenty-one, only a few years after she had come to Vienna. During her short life, she gave birth to four children, three of whom died in infancy. Searching for a reason for the death of her children, Margarita Theresa blamed the Jews living in Vienna at the time. It was because Jews had been allowed to live and work, even under severe restrictions, in the Christian Empire that God was punishing the rulers. It is truly an interesting understanding of the Christian message of love and compassion that results in terrorizing completely innocent people in the name of God.
So, after having found whom to blame, Margarita Theresa encouraged the Emperor to expel the Jews in the firm belief that this action would be greatly pleasing to God. Even more depressingly, the inhabitants of Vienna welcomed so enthusiastically the expulsion of the Jews that they re-named the Jewish district “Leopoldstadt” (this is now the second “bizirk” or district of the city) after the Emperor who had been responsible for what was seen as a profoundly Christian decision. From a Christian perspective, which has taken in Christ’s repeated identification with the persecuted and the homeless, one could imagine the Son of God walking alongside these poor unfortunates, driven out of their homes for no reason at all.
Standing before Velazquez’s marvellous portraits one admires the charming child princess, struggling to keep her royal dignity while, at the same time, enticing with her childish innocence. You see the girl growing up in front of your eyes – at the age of two, then when she was five, and later at eight – and you can’t help asking “who is she?” Her story is, in so many ways, typical of the age.