Time and Trace: The Mirror of Time

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Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas is certainly one of the philosophically most interesting, most ambitious and most discussed paintings of all times. It contains a philosophical thesis or insight that can be interpreted in several ways but that also forces the interpreter to come to a precise decision concerning the concrete scenery that is reproduced in this painting. The content of this decision can be characterized quite concretely by the question of the painting’s mirror, which is constitutive for that scenery. The question is if this constitutive mirror is the one that we see in the painting, that is, the visible mirror showing the appearance (or the portrait) of the Spanish royal couple, or if it is an invisible mirror that has disappeared in the painting as we see it now. If the second interpretation is right, then the whole painting is essentially covering the tracks of what is going on in the picture. But what is going on in it? This question has an answer that is widely shared by philosophical interpreters: Las Meninas is a “painting of painting” or a “picture of picture,” that is, a monument of self-referentiality. When we accept this widely shared view and if we apply to it the second interpretation (the hypothesis of the hidden mirror), then the result is that what is at the same time shown and hidden in this picture is the time in which it has been painted. It is—like perhaps every picture or painting—in its essence a transformation of succession into simultaneity; but it is—unlike perhaps any other painting—a presentation not of the result of this transformation but of the process in which it is going on. It presents the time of its creation as a trace covered up by itself.


Journal for the Study of Time


AsemissenHermann Ulrich Las Meninas von Diego Velázquez Kasseler Hefte für Kunstwissenschaft und Kunstpädagogik 1981 2 Kassel Gesamthochschule Kassel

BoehmGottfried BoehmGottfried “Die Wiederkehr der Bilder” Was ist ein Bild? 1994 Munich Fink 11 38

FoucaultMichael The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences 1970 London and New York Routledge 2005

StoichitaVictor I Das Mystische Auge: Vision und Malerei im Spanien des Goldenen Zeitalters 1977 München Fink

VinciLeonardo da KempMartinWalkerMargaret Leonardo on Painting: An Anthology of Writings by Leonardo da Vinci with a Selection of Documents Relatings to His Career 2001 Yale Yale University Press


Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), 1-18.


See Gottfried Boehm, “Die Wiederkehr der Bilder.” in Was ist ein Bild?, ed. by Gottfried Boehm (Munich: Fink, 1994), 11-38.


Foucault, The Order of Things, 5.


Ibid., 16.


Ibid., 4.


Ibid., 335.


Ibid., 5.


Ibid., 10.


Ibid., 16.


Ibid., 9, 17.


Ibid., 22.


Cf. Victor I. Stoichita, Das mystische Auge. Vision und Malerei im Spanien des Goldenen Zeitalters (München: Fink, 1977), 105ff.


Foucault, The Order of Things, 9. The author would like to thank Neil O’Donnell for his assistance in the translation of his contribution to this volume.



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