The name of the 17th-century Spanish artist Juan de Pareja is forever associated with that of another great Spanish painter of the same period, Diego Velázquez, who painted a celebrated portrait of Pareja and also seems to have provided him with artistic training. But the connection between the two is more complicated than that: Pareja was born a slave, was purchased by Velázquez as a young man, and set free by Velázquez about twenty years later. A new exhibit about Pareja at the Metropolitan Museum reveals something else about the two, as Diane Cole writes:
Although Velázquez and Pareja were both practicing Catholics, they lived in a country where the judicial office known as the Spanish Inquisition investigated and persecuted any and all whom they suspected of religious heresy—in other words, any faith aside from devout Catholicism.
Particularly suspect were those whose ancestry was not considered “pure”—a group that included those with Jewish or Moorish ancestors. These people were often known as “New Christians,” a legal label passed from one generation to the next to ensure the continued control and authority of the powerful “Old Christian” aristocracy. No matter that such a conversion might have taken place a century or more before. “New” was an automatic disqualification for anyone seeking elevation from the royal court or acknowledgement of special merit.
Pareja was probably at least partially of Morisco, or Islamic, heritage. And Velázquez himself was possibly descended from Jewish conversos.