Chicago, Illinois, United States
Jester named Don Juan de Austria by Diego Velazquez
During the modern era, kings employed jesters for the entertainment of monarchs and their guests. These jesters were often people with mental illnesses or congenital metabolic diseases. They were payed for their services and often lived in the royal household. There, they amused the royal family and other members such as the retinue, the camarilla, or the bodyguards by juggling or telling bawdy jokes.
Culturally, the popularity of jesters has been explained as a symbolic charge derived from the contrast between ridiculous or malformed individuals, reinforcing the relative perfection of the members of the royal household and other noblemen. Many of these jesters were taken care of by the aristocracy living in court and were often painted by the most prestigious painters working in the court.1
Diego Velázquez became the official court painter during the reign of Philip IV. The painter of Las Meninas had a unique talent to capture in his portrayals the essence of a person’s humanity. Among many other projects Velazquez was commissioned to paint the jesters living in court. The realistic depictions of these jesters hint at some of their possible medical problems. For instance, Don Nicolasito Pertusato, who appears in Las Meninas, likely had a growth hormone deficiency; Don Juan de Calabazas’ depiction suggests a congenital intellectual disability.2, 3, 4
Of particular interest is Velázquez’s portrayal of the rogue named Don Juan de Austria. The latter worked in Philip IV’s court between 1624 and 1654. We do not have many details of his personal biography. He probably got his name from the bastard son of Emperor Charles V, Don Juan de Austria, a half-brother of Philip II.1, 2 The Emperor’s bastard son distinguished himself as a military man in the famous battle of Lepanto in 1571 against the Turks. Despite dying at a young age, he became well known for decades, and the jester got his name from him. As such, Velazquez depicted the jester with a cloak and black doublet (it is known that Don Juan had a similar dress), surrounded by abandoned helmets, armor, and weapons, and with a fragment of a battle-scene of Lepanto in the background.5 The satirical representation of the sloppy man suggests his status as jester, and he most likely had the grandiose delusion of being the prestigious Don Juan de Austria. His entertaining job probably consisted of sharing his delusions with the members of the court, which secured him a good salary. In the realistic portrait, the jester appears messy and careless. In today’s nomenclature, his delusional thinking and self-neglect would suggest a diagnosis of schizophrenia.
- Perez Sanchez, E., Gallego, J., Mena Marques, MB, Monstruos, enanos y bufones en la Corte de Los Austrias, Madrid: Museo del Prado, 1986
- Moragas, J., Los Bufones de Velazquez, Medicina e Historia, Fasciculo 6, 1964
- Barret, M., Diego de Velazquez: Portrait of Juan de Calabazas, British Journal of Psychiatry, January 2018
- Harris, J.C., Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), JAMA Psychiatry, February, 2011
- Lafuente Ferrari, E. Museo del Prado. Pintura española de los siglos XVI y XVII. Madrid: Aguilar S.A. 1964
FERNANDO ESPI FORCEN is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois. He would like to acknowledge his brother, Carlos Espi Forcen, an art history professor in Spain, who introduced him to the painting Jester named Don Juan de Austria.