Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus

Diego de Velázquez (1620)

Made when he was still a teenager, this is an almost unfathomable combination of prodigiously exquisite craftsmanship and commentary on the theology of painting. In the foreground, the ’mulata’ performs basic domestic tasks (check out the exquisite still life of the utensils and maybe the best garlic in art) but is clearly distracted. Her frozen right hand and the discarded cloth suggest she’s momentarily resting from her labour, while a subtle, telling tilt of the head suggests a beautiful attentiveness to the significance of what happens behind. There, the risen Christ reveals himself (not like that, stop sniggering at the back) to two men who do not recognise him. Compare this to the staggering Caravaggio version of the same episode, where the biblical episode is gloriously front and centre: Velazquez foregrounds the African slave and the act of service itself, exalting both and reminding us of the value of attention, of remaining alive to the possibility of epiphanies and miracles in any given moment, no matter how prosaic. There’s also something touchingly poetic about how the background scene was only uncovered by art historians in the 19th century, a window of consciousness opened after its time. The gospel tale, and the life story of this amazing painting, become about the same eternal thing: we may not see it immediately, but the truth is there. As George Eliot says, “after all, the true seeing is within”. What was once the image of simple manual toil has become a transcendent revelation about grace, faith, and the simple, infinite act of paying attention.