I saw it: The invented Realities of Goya's Disasters of War

Secularizing the Holy:
Christian Iconography in Goya's: Disasters of War

In his Disasters of War print series, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes primarily and overwhelmingly depicts the contemporary and secular subject of human suffering caused by Napoleon’s invasion and occupation of Spain in the early nineteenth century.  Yet Goya also concerns himself with the sacred, by making frequent reference to traditional Christian iconography and Biblical narratives, and by directly critiquing the abuses of the Catholic Church.  Over a third of the eighty prints in the series refer to common Christian narratives and pictorial traditions.  As Robert Hughes states in his monograph on Goya, any Spaniard would have recognized Goya’s allusion to the figure of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane in the first plate of the series (Fig. 9); indeed, the representation of Christ’s temptation would have been an appropriate decoration for any church or cathedral (275). 

In 1792 Goya composed a letter to the Academy of San Fernando in which he condemned using academic formulae as precepts for teaching art, advocating instead studying and painting directly from nature (Hughes 126). Why then, in what is often considered his most realistic effort, does Goya so frequently turn to formulae of the Christian iconographical tradition?  Admittedly, in his 1792 letter, Goya addresses the subject of art education rather than the content or style of the art, and he depicts these Christian subjects in an independent style unconstrained by academic convention, but he nevertheless refers to this existing tradition much more frequently than might be ordinarily expected from a self-proclaimed devotee of nature. 

That Goya uses the Disasters as a form of social commentary is evident; he often critiques the injustices committed by those in power, not the least the church.  Goya’s desire to criticize the Church was strongly influenced by the political situation in Spain during his lifetime.  Throughout the reigns of Carlos III and Carlos IV power was divided between liberals desiring reform, particularly in education, agriculture, and distribution of land, and conservative monarchists, who could rely on the influence of the church for support.  Ministers with varying interests in reform worked for both kings, but no significant changes to the social structure were made, and no violent conflicts occurred, until Carlos IV named Emmanuel Godoy Prime Minister.  A minor nobleman, Godoy was disliked by conservatives for both his unprecedented, quick rise to power and his moderate liberalism:  “Both the Church and the aristocracy resented his ambition – encouraged by the economic theories of ilustrados like [Gaspar Melchor de] Jovellanos – to prime the stagnant economy of Spain by forcing them to sell off at least some of their enormous and idle land holdings” (Hughes 232).  The Church, which had no desire to lose any of its long-standing power in Spain, felt particularly threatened by Godoy, and banded together with the Crown Prince Fernando against him.  Their plotting culminated in an uprising in 1808 in which a mob stormed Godoy’s palace, forcing Carlos IV to abdicate in favor of his son Fernando.  Napoleon entered Spain soon after and placed his brother Joseph on the throne as José (Tomlinson, Goya 179). 

While the general outline is clear, it is difficult to situate Goya within this social and political arena with any precision and clarity.   F. D. Klingender, in his Marxist interpretation of Goya, makes the excellent point that “there is a close correlation between the wider social experience which Goya shared with his contemporaries and his own attitude to that experience on the one hand, and the formal characteristics of his style on the other . ...” (xiii).  However, Klingender probably goes too far in portraying Goya as an artist engagé, documenting the Peninsular War and its aftermath as a great expression of social liberalism (151).  Nigel Glendinning similarly argues for a liberal Goya, on the basis that many of Goya’s liberal patrons were also his friends and that his relationships with them strongly colored his views on the excesses of the Church and aristocracy (lxiv-lxxvi), although, as Janice Tomlinson points out, Goya’s execution of commissioned portraits does not necessarily intimate that he had personal or political relationships with the sitters (7). Goya’s exact political affiliations are somewhat obscure; during the French occupation Goya completed several portraits for French sitters, and he received a medal from the French (Hughes 308), but he did not openly declare allegiance to Napoleon, and he retained his status as Court Painter (Wilson-Bareau 45).

Such political ambiguity marks Goya’s professional activity throughout his career.  His artworks, however, most especially his print series, clearly indicate liberal and especially anti-clerical tendencies.  His earliest print series, the Caprichos, published in 1799, is filled with satire and criticisms of the existing social structure.  Plate 13, They’re Hot, which depicts gluttonous, monstrous monks about to dine, speaks volumes about Goya’s views on the Church’s material greed and consumption. 

This thematic continued to inform many of the eighty prints in the later Disasters of War.  In Plate 43, This too, Goya depicts a crowd in flight, including two monks whose habits have ridden up their legs to reveal pants, an item of clothing belonging distinctly to the laity.  In the panic of their escape, these monks have let their hidden secularity show through; their robes do no more than cloak their true selves.  The next plate in the series, I saw it (Fig. 3), contains an even more biting critique of the Church.  In the center foreground a mother carries an infant over her shoulder and grasps another young child by the hand, while to the left a priest must use both his hands to hold his moneybag.  The welfare of his congregation is obviously less important to this priest than his own comfort, for he is clearly one of the first of those fleeing.  In Plate 47, the viewer sees a church being sacked, and although he or she might be sympathetic toward the priest whose church is being robbed, it is impossible not to notice the opulence and abundance of the stolen items.  Goya is ultimately a humanist, however, and he thus sympathetically depicts the murder of a priest in Plate 46 with the caption This is bad (Fig. 6).

The last sixteen prints of the series, known as the emphatic caprices, also condemn the clergy, depicting them praying to animals, or even as animals themselves.  In Plate 77 a bishop walks across a fraying tightrope while a crowd looks on expectantly.  The caption, May the cord break, pithily conveys the anti-clerical message of the print.  Alfredo Rivera discusses the emphatic caprices in detail, so it will suffice to say here that these images are allegorical and satirical in nature, and are most likely a response to the oppressive regime of Fernando, who was restored to power after the French evacuated Spain in 1814 (Wilson-Bareau 57).

In the Disasters of War, then, Goya often imparts his opinions on prevalent and pressing social issues regarding the Church.  But, the Disasters function as more than social commentary. They also reveal a dialogue of reference and contrast with earlier religious works of art, particularly with the religious prints of Rembrandt van Rijn.  Goya establishes this conscious dialogue with an existing artistic tradition for his own purposes.  What makes Goya’s depictions unique is how he takes familiar religious imagery and subverts it; he secularizes the holy and sanctifies the secular, and even overturns it in order to criticize the clergy. These manipulations are evident in the introductory print of the series, Sad Forebodings of what is going to happen (Fig. 9).  Against a darkly etched background, a Spaniard is depicted kneeling, with his arms outstretched and his eyes cast upwards.  It is a familiar image, that of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, “kneeling to beseech God the Father to let the cup of sacrifice pass from his lips and spare him the torments of crucifixion” (Hughes 273).  However, the figure here is clearly not Biblical; he is recognizable by his physiognomy and dress as a Spanish contemporary.  Unlike Christ, however, this Spaniard has no guarantee of salvation after his pain.

Similarly, the scene in Plate 14, It’s a hard step! (Fig. 10), is reminiscent of the crucifixion (Rose-de-Viejo 60), and the figural grouping of Plate 50, Unhappy mother! (Fig. 14), alludes to the descent from the cross (Hughes 298; cf. 207).  Both scenes have been secularized, stripped of their original transcendental meanings, by transfer to the contemporary, and only in their formal rhetoric remain evocative of the original Christological events:  “The association of contemporary events with religious history was deeply embedded in Spanish rhetoric of the time; Goya used this rhetoric only to expose it for what it was” (Wolf 47).  Goya’s interweaving of the transcendental and the real enriches the range of meanings the prints invoke.  In some sense, Goya brings the religious narratives down to a much more human level, and sometimes perhaps even raises humanity closer to divinity. On another level, he also establishes a reference point for his own art.  While as a rule Goya rejects academic formulae in favor of nature, here he not only consciously invokes the rhetoric of the Christian pictorial tradition and Biblical narratives in order to claim a place for his work among more traditional, sanctioned art, but also makes trenchant commentary on the Church.  The result is a highly original and effective work of art; the viewer is able to comprehend both the Christian allusion and the extremely contemporary, pressing impact of the scene of human suffering.

Goya also secularizes images of martyrs throughout the print series.  Plates 15, 31, 32 (Fig. 27), 33 (Fig. 28), 36, 37 (Fig. 4), 38, and 39 recall typical scenes of Christians suffering for their faith.  As Goldfarb asserts, the central figure in Plate 39, An heroic feat!  With dead men! (Fig. 29), is reminiscent of a nude St. Sebastian or St. Bartholomew bound to a tree and executed, although here the figure has been castrated and hung from a tree with two other dead men whose bodies have been mercilessly mutilated (Piranesi-Goya, 29).  Unlike the Christian martyrs, however, these Spaniards do not seem to have died for any reason.  Ostensibly they may have given themselves in defense of their country, but Goya’s treatment of the subjects denies any noble purpose of self-sacrifice.  The castration of these men drives home the point that they have not given themselves willingly to torture and death – they have not sacrificed their manhood, but have had it violently taken from them.  These men are not figures of heroic resistance, but victims of torture and mutilation – the viewer is presented only with the apparently senseless effects of war, and, with all gloss of nobility pulled away, is forced to consider the full barbarity of humanity.  

Plates 34 and 35, On account of a knife and One can’t tell why (Fig. 2), conversely, do not make reference to martyrs of Christianity but, rather, display one of the instruments of execution originally employed by the Catholic Inquisition.  Both prints depict men the French have garroted, by securing them to chairs with screws driven into the bases of their necks until their spinal cords were severed.  Goya had treated the subject before in his early etching Garroted Man of about 1779, but in the early print the man was executed by the Spanish rather than being a victim of the French.  In the Disasters, it is significant that the French army, a secular power, has adopted this method of execution from the Holy Office of the Inquisition.  However, Goya makes sure the message here is clear: whether the Spanish or the French carry out these executions, whether the Holy Office or the army, the after-effects are the same.  As Reva Wolf writes:  “Goya also seems to have understood a profound implication of this fill-in-the-blank iconography: power is inevitably accompanied by abuse; governments change, but human nature remains steadfast” (47).

In addition to appropriating the iconography of martyrs and heretics in the Disasters of War, Goya also subverts the rite of the blessing (45). Plates 14, 71 (Fig. 23), 76, 77, and 79 all feature the benediction in some way or another.  In Plate 14, It’s a hard step! (Fig. 10), a monk blesses a man who is about to be hanged, and in Plate 79, Truth has died, a bishop blesses Truth, who has just died and is about to be buried.  Goya has subverted the apparently benign administration of the last rites and made it sinister by reversing the hand with which the clergyman gives the sign of the benediction.  Normally the clergyman gives the blessing with the first two fingers of his right hand extended, a fact with which Goya would certainly have been familiar, and which is evidenced by a man in the crowd in Plate 76, The carnivorous vulture (Fig. 19), but in Plates 14 and 79 the clergymen raise only one finger of their left hand.  The left, or sinister hand, carries the connotation of evil and malignance, and the event depicted thus becomes one in which the blessing is suspect and perhaps malevolent – are the clergymen preparing the victims’ souls or approving their deaths? 

That many of the Disasters of War prints invoke not only general Christian iconography but also religious works by particular artists further enriches Goya’s placement of his art within an established and respected tradition.  By referring back to Jusepe de Ribera and Rembrandt van Rijn in particular, Goya claims a place for himself alongside those artists and associates himself and his art with the accepted practices of “old masters.”  Jusepe de Ribera was a seventeenth-century Spanish painter whose martyred saints seem, according to Wolf, to be a source of inspiration for Goya’s secular martyrs; she asserts that the sublimity and horror of Ribera can be viewed as a point of departure for Goya’s art (47).  The figures in Goya’s An heroic feat!  With dead men! (Fig. 29) are a potent example.  The horrific display of nude bodies suspended from the tree trunks strongly resembles Ribera’s etched nude St. Bartholomew, who was hanged from a tree and flayed alive.

  While there were very few Rembrandt paintings in Spain in the early nineteenth century, an 1812 inventory of Goya’s house indicates that he owned ten Rembrandt prints (Tomlinson, Goya, 205), and he may have been familiar with many more through his friends’ collections.  Many figural and compositional similarities can be seen between Goya’s Disasters and Rembrandt’s prints; the kneeling figure in Plate 1 of the Disasters (Fig. 9) not only recalls the iconic format of Christ kneeling in the Garden, but also bears a particular resemblance to the kneeling St. Stephen in Rembrandt’s The Stoning of St. Stephen.  The scene in Plate 26, One can’t look (Fig. 5), is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s Raising of Lazarus (Fig. 11) – both prints are built around groupings of figures in caves (Rose de Viejo 60).  Plate 69, Nothing (Fig. 13) also bears some striking visual resemblances to The Raising of Lazarus:  “Howling witches and demons in the murky background of Goya’s Nada appear related to the distorted countenances of witnesses in Rembrandt’s small TheRaising of Lazarus (Rose de Viejo 62)Likewise, the figure being carried in Unhappy mother! (Fig. 14), reminiscent of Christ being carried down from the cross, could very well have been inspired by Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross (Fig. 12), for the drape of the lifeless legs as the body is carried is remarkably similar.  Generally speaking, Goya seems to have been heavily influenced not only by Rembrandt’s “figural poses” but also by Rembrandt’s etching technique, including “resonances of light and shade” (Rose de Viejo 40). 

Goya often presents the actions taking place in the Disasters of War as though the viewer were a member of a crowd witnessing the event (Plates 34, 77).  In other prints, the viewer is not as obviously implicated as an onlooker, but the contrast of a contemporary Spanish war subject with familiar Christian rhetoric nevertheless forces him or her to look at the image in a highly focused, attentive way.   Any contemporary Spaniard, or indeed anyone schooled in Christian imagery, looking at the Disasters of War, can immediately recognize poses he or she has seen countless times in Christian art.  However, the scenes Goya depicts in the Disasters of War are very different from traditional religious art; the viewer is moved by the vividly realistic depictions of suffering  The presence of Christian artistic rhetoric in these contemporary and secular print scenes pulls the viewer forcefully into the conscious role of viewing, in essence, to be a witness.  The familiar Christian imagery serves as a point of entry to viewing, placing the observer in an unexpected position, in which he or she must rethink these familiar images in a contemporary setting, and must carefully observe Goya’s irrefutable commentary on war, which states, “I saw it.”

—Nathaniel Jones


Last Updated: September 2, 2004