Far from the usual shackles of art history, Nicolas Autheman offers a journey to the heart of a mysterious painting. His very lively documentary adopts the technique already adopted in Le Monde dans un tableau, Vermeer’s hat, released in 2020.

1618. Velazquez painted Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, a canvas depicting at first sight two women in the kitchen. The title comes from an inverted composition, with Christ, Martha and Mary appearing in a window in the background. In the foreground we see a detail, a fragment: a small red pepper on the table.

This extremely pungent food, used in different cuisines, rites, beliefs, both hated and adored, arrived in Velazquez’s web for very specific reasons. The documentary encourages reflection, to see further, behind the scenes of this more enigmatic canvas than it seems. It reveals, with precision and meticulousness, the real meaning of this small detail which was not one for the painter and his sponsors.

Historical stories from Spain

Narrator François Morel takes us deep into Spain’s historical tales to uncover the debacles that allowed this little pepper to be at the heart of Velazquez’s web. It travels through history, recalling the raw and tragic realities that marked the Spanish colonization, the massacre of the Incas, the diseases brought there by the colonists… And these peppers that they brought back on their return, as if to give… spice up their adventure.

Nicolas Autheman found commentators today concerned with this obscure fragment of history, and their history. A cook is familiar with the dish that the cooks prepare in the painting: it is an adobo – typical Spanish fish marinade; a farmer, with his family, recounts the beliefs that have unfolded around the pepper; a young Mexican artist recalls her own quest for identity linked to her colonized ancestors; a priest evokes the Christianization of South America at the time of the arrival of the colonists.

Thanks to this little spice, the under layers of Spanish colonial history are exposed to us in a totally unexpected and almost playful way. Every detail counts and allows us to understand the context of the creation of the work by Velazquez, the decisions and the dilemmas that allowed the painting to exist.

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