I, Juan de Pareja


I wrote briefly the other day about the fascinating story of Juan de Pareja, who was the the slave of Velázquez before being freed and becoming an artist in his own right. Here’s Velázquez’s portrait of him:

Juan de Pareja

And here’s one of his own paintings, with the artist himself looking at us from the far left:

The Calling of Saint Matthew

Juan de Pareja’s story is told in an excellent children’s novel, I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño.

The book is beautifully written. I’ve already quoted one passage in my earlier post but I could have quoted countless others. Elizabeth Borton de Treviño was a really skilful wordsmith.

The plot is also intriguing. Once I’d got started, I certainly wanted to read on until the very end. It’s not exactly a page-turner but it is definitely compelling reading.

The messages that shine through the book are also worthy of our attention. Elizabeth Borton de Treviño dealt sensitively with issues of racism (with one exception, which I’ll mention later), loyalty, and slavery.

However, what is perhaps most surprising about the book is its spiritual sensitivity. Velázquez’s love of the truth runs through the whole book and, as early as the fifth page, we hear about Juan de Pareja’s love of the Mass:

“Mass was in the great cathedral, with its soaring arches, its tall pillars, its glinting gold on altars and picture frames, its soft candlelight in the scented gloom. This was for me, as always, a delight. I loved the melodious chanting of the priests, the beauty of their vestments, the glorious moment of the elevation. Mistress often had to rap me with her fan in church, for I quite forgot her, her sweetmeats and her rosary, everything, while I sent my soul upward to bathe in a golden light which seemed to come down from God.”

This isn’t the only example of Juan de Pareja’s love of the sacraments. There is a moving section well into the novel in which he can no longer to Confession. However, eventually he does return to the sacrament:

“At last my turn came, and I confessed. I told of angers I had felt, of times when I had been slothful, of having stolen little mounds of color. I told of the worst sin, that I had despaired of the love of God, and that I had, in my pride, supposed that God’s mercy and forgiveness, which are boundless, would be withheld from me.

“The priest gave me a stern penance and I rose from my knees and went to kneel once more beside Bartolomé [Esteban Murillo]. He could not know, ever, what a gift he had made me, by making me see that I could be shriven and could once again receive Our Lord.”

How refreshing it is to read passages like those in children’s literature, especially in critically acclaimed literature (for I, Juan de Pareja won the Newbery Medal in 1966.) The liturgy and sacraments are strangely absent from both children’s and adult literature, for reasons I may speculate about on another occasion, so it’s great to see them appear in this novel. And just to be absolutely clear about this, I, Juan de Pareja is a long way from being a hagiographical work. In fact, its unflinching portrayal of human weakness and wickedness is one of the reasons the truth and beauty it contains shine through so wonderfully.

So, there you have it: I am a fan. However, reluctantly, I have to mention one problem. In this book that tears into racial stereotyping, there appears a Romany character who is a horrible stereotype. He is a villain by day and revels in gypsy dances by night. He has no redeeming features. He is an unfortunate aberration in this otherwise excellent novel.

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