In an era when the death toll of war is narrated so casually and quantitatively, an early 19th century Spanish painting reminds us how much we lose when just one person is killed.
The poor, plainly-dressed labourer has only moments to live. His arms are held aloft in a final, defiant assertion of his humanity, while his face droops downwards, more out of resignation than fear.
Nothing will save him from joining the tangled heap of corpses which lies on the ground to his immediate right. Within seconds, he’ll be just another victim of the cold, efficient massacre that’s taking place on Madrid’s Principe Pio hill at 4 o’clock on an icy black morning in May.
Time is a dominant presence in Francisco de Goya’s most famous painting. Its title is a time itself – The Third of May 1808 – and the picture was intended to commemorate a specific event in Spanish history. On that date, hundreds of Madrilenians were shot dead by Napoleonic insurgents, whose usurpation of the city the previous day had provoked the populace to rebellion. Goya’s painting depicts the savage reprisals that followed: a systematic mass execution of civilians at point blank range.
Six years later, after the French had finally been vanquished, Goya proposed a sequence of paintings to the Spanish government that would remember the sacrifices his fellow citizens made that night. The Third of May 1808 was the second of two delivered, prefaced by its companion piece The Second of May 1808, which portrays the pandemonium of the uprising itself in the city’s Puerta del Sol, where ordinary folk set about Napoleon’s crack Mameluke troops with knives and fists.
Facing the implacable void
There is a powerful journalistic feel to The Third of May 1808; such is the reportage style there was even speculation (now discredited) that Goya himself was an eyewitness. Its lack of artsy contrivance and in-the-moment dynamic gives the picture an unpolished immediacy that’s antithetical to the grand, aestheticized historical paintings of contemporaries like Jacques-Louis David.
Goya’s vision is hyper-gritty and bleak, especially for a canvas designed to invoke nationalist pride (perhaps this was one of the reasons it was discreetly placed in storage by the powers-that-be). The protagonists are neither knights or noblemen, princes or politicians. They are commoners, victims of circumstances, supporting players in history’s drama – and there is no epic grandeur or compressed narrative characteristic of early 19th century commemorative pictures like The Battle of Waterloo.
Instead, it feels like you’ve turned a street corner and stepped unwittingly into a crime scene. A group of civilians huddle together near a bloodied pile of bodies, cowering against a nauseatingly-coloured hill. Opposite them and exceedingly close – as if Goya deliberately squeezes the spatial field to heighten the drama – are a faceless group of Napoleonic riflemen, ready to discharge the fatal blasts. Above them all is the heaviest and deadest of nights, an implacable void oppressing the gruesome scene below.
We can’t help but watch with uneasy familiarity at the grey, sharply delineated, Napoleonic automatons, a huge compact killing machine stretching endlessly into deep space
Graphic horror was Goya’s stock-in-trade. After a successful spell as the Royal court painter, he suffered a serious illness (most likely due to poisonous vapours emanating from his pigments) and became stone deaf. Troubled, withdrawn and operating on the margins, Goya responded to his disability by producing a visual arsenal of shocking intensity. Absorbing pieces such as Yard with Lunatics, an unforgettable image of madness, and his infamous engraving The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is like watching a mind unravelling before you.
A visceral and spiritual experience
This culminated in his illustrative series The Disasters of War, a sequence of 82 prints that together constitute an indignant scream at the stupidity of conflict. The Third of May 1808 was produced during this same period, and it marks the high point of Goya’s violent, extremist art. The painting’s emotional power lies in how it replaces the gothic surrealism of The Sleep of Reason with a kind of vivid, abrasive hyper-reality, and in its contemplation of a new kind of military terror being unleashed on humanity.
In the 21st century, we’re now so desensitised to murder on an industrialised scale – the Somme, Auschwitz, Sarajevo, Rwanda – that we can’t help but watch with uneasy familiarity at the grey, sharply delineated, Napoleonic automatons, a huge compact killing machine stretching endlessly into deep space.
These tightly-focused assassins form a radical contrast to the crumbling chaos of the victims, a grisly knot of limbs accentuated by a sly shift in perspective which sees the dead man face down in the foreground almost tip out into the viewer’s space. Goya’s painting is the artistic equivalent of a thump on the nose; he grinds the scene into your consciousness in the same way he applied the wet-on-wet painting technique to cake red onto his canvas, making Spanish blood an indelible feature of the sun-scorched earth.
There is darkness a-plenty in The Third of May 1808 – but there is light too. For a painting about imminent death, it pulses with a strange, life-affirming energy. Chief counterpoint to the executioners is the image’s central figure, a humble labourer bathed in the light of the soldiers’ lantern. Goya illuminates this figure with all the tools at his disposal – space, composition, colour, shape – the X pattern of his spread-eagled posture drawing your eyes towards the intense luminosity of his clothing.
The genius of Goya’s painting lies in how it masterfully dramatises this resurgent effect, audaciously swinging the energy away from the aggressor to the sufferer
Here, the artist’s deafness proves his trump card. Depriving someone of one sense tends to intensify the receptivity of the others, and there’s no question Goya makes you feel the contrasting visual effects of light and dark more than most painters. The chiaroscuro effect is not simply a visceral device though: it imbues the picture with spiritual overtones that elevate it to a whole new level of resonance.
Sporting white and yellow clothes (the heraldic colours of the papacy), the central figure is as much holy martyr as he is salt-of-the-earth. His arms are spread wide as if being crucified and his palms bear the scars of stigmata, a gesture that would be reimagined by Picasso in Guernica, where two outstretched hands reach skywards from the Fascist-inflicted cubist rubble.
Everyman and Superman
Elsewhere, the glowing lantern recalls the Roman soldiers capturing Christ in Gethsemane, a light source so aggressively bright that it makes the victim seem almost supernatural, other-worldly, as if he is about to rise Saviour-like to a higher plane of existence. The effect is compounded by a spectacular breach of proportion. The labourer is kneeling down, but if stood up would tower over his assailants. Both Everyman and Superman, he transcends himself at the very moment of death.
In Christian doctrine, this is what’s known as transfiguration, named after the episode in the Gospels when Jesus transforms before his disciples so ‘his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light’ (Matthew 17): that moment before death when we metamorphose into a more spiritual, beautiful state.
The genius of Goya’s painting lies in how it masterfully dramatises this resurgent effect, audaciously swinging the energy away from the aggressor to the sufferer; capturing a pure drop of divinity as it ripples through an ocean of depression. The ordinary turns extraordinary, the anonymous becomes the archetypal – and The Third of May 1808 transforms into a potent symbol of tragedy, a single image of iconic status similar to the scorched nakedness of Phan Thi Kim Phuc seeking refuge from napalm.
“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire,” says the Talmud, a sacred text of Judaism. In an era where the death toll of war victims is talked about so casually and quantitatively, Goya reminds us how much we lose when just one person is killed. That’s why whenever I look at The Third of May 1808, I feel humbled, blessed, glad to be alive – and savour how my life’s troubles fade into the background before it, like shadow being gradually extinguished by light.
For the journey of Goya’s labourer is the journey of the artist and the viewer. When faced with the penury of death, the peasant achieves true spiritual wealth and immortality. When all sound had died away, Goya channelled this emptiness into a supernova of light. And when we gaze upon this scene of squalid murder, and reflect on the competing energies raging within it, we appreciate more than anything life’s preciousness and beauty, and hope that when our time comes, we can strive to be as bold, as brilliant, as divine.
A Guide to The Third of May 1808 Official Website of the Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Complete Works of Franciso de Goya, franciscodegoya.net
Iconic War Photography The Guardian, 26 April 2013