I most enjoy visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone. Roaming through the large domed rooms and long corridors excites in me the same feeling as standing in the center of a dark field under a starry sky; one feels minuscule, solitary, but also acutely aware of the transcendent powers of human intelligence. True, one is never alone at the Met but the presence of others need not be a hindrance. Rather, the comings and goings of others, their preoccupation with family and selfies, provides continual insight into human nature.
As a solo traveler, I have friends scattered throughout the museum. Last week, after finishing lunch in "the servants' quarters" of the Annenburg Mansion, I took the lift to the second floor to see my dear old friend Juan de Pareja. Juan lives in Room 610, in the company of his Spanish compatriots. The slave and assistant of Velazquez, Juan occupies a modest space in the center of the room shared by stunning examples of the Spanish artistic genius. Juan humbly commands the room as he observes visitors and passersby from the limits of his golden frame.
My visit to Juan is a sort of an artistic pilgrimage. My visits are always unannounced though Juan never seems surprised or annoyed. He is always there, waiting to sit and chat. Our conversations, surprisingly, are anything but one sided. Seated on a bench across from Juan, he and I carry on, silently, long intense conversations on art, philosophy, aesthetics, and even politics.
The first thing you notice abut Juan is his distinctly Moorish roots. Slavery existed in Spain from Greek and Roman times. Christian, Muslims and Jews participated in the trade. Some of the slaves were prisoners or the sons of prisoners captured in wars against the Moorish kingdoms of southern Spain. These prisoners were forced to convert to Christianity. Slaves were allowed to buy their freedom. Later, Muslim slaves were replaced by Africans captured in the Sahara and other regions. These slaves were called “Bozales.” Spain abolished slavery in 1866, about the same time America did.
Cast into servitude, Juan’s position is testimony to the destruction of a once remarkable culture that brought learning and innovation to Spain and the rest of Europe. Like my Sephardic ancestors who were expelled in 1492, Juan’s Muslim ancestors were expelled by Spain in 1610.
Velazquez was certainly aware of Juan’s heritage. With time to kill in the Vatican, as he waited to paint a portrait of the Pope, Velazquez decided to paint the portrait of his dark-skinned slave. He wanted to dazzle fellow artists and the public with his virtuosity. He wanted to prove he could, impromptu, produce a masterpiece.
At that time, Juan might have been seen as a slave but for posterity Velazquez imbued his sitter with a free man’s humble dignity and an iridescent breath of life. Juan’s sense of dignity and self-respect is communicated through his eyes; eyes that look, assuredly, directly ahead; alert eyes that compel us to respect this man as an intelligent, conscious human being. Velazquez paints Juan as an equal, as a full human being. The Pope must have understood the not too subtle message Velazquez conveyed by his impromptu portrait.
Juan, too, understands the portrait’s political importance. He will not accept a submissive role. He resists being stigmatized, shamed or intimidated. He maintains his self-respect insisting that he be referred to as “Assistant.”
Juan has not grown tired these hundreds of years. His struggle, our struggle, is ongoing. That is why conversations with Juan will never end as museum visitors peer into his eyes and experience anew the unflinching dignity and personal strength of the human struggle for freedom.