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Interpreting Death and Martyrdom: ‘The Third of May, 1808’ – Part 1

Updated: Oct 26, 2019

Author: Rahul Majumder MVA, Art History, MSU Baroda

Raising the hands up to the sky, a puzzled man gazes towards his death-this particular frame had been known as a symbol of martyrdom in the history of western art. Goya’s famous construal of a day, ‘The Third of May, 1808’ is a depiction of an atrocity committed by the French army on the people of Madrid during the Peninsular War (1808-14). It all started in 1807, when Napoleon went on conquering the world and tricked Spain’s king, Charles IV, into an alliance with him in order to conquer Portugal. Napoleon’s troops poured into Spain, supposedly just passing through. But Napoleon’s real intentions soon became clear as the alliance was nothing but a trick. Taking over parts of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, became the new king of Spain. On 2nd May, 1808 there was a violent uprising against the invaders in the city of Madrid, killing number of French officials; however, the counter-attack was swift and far more brutal. On 3rd May, 1808, French soldiers carried out a massacre, randomly murdering innocent citizens of Madrid and carried out executions on the hills of Principe Pio.

The outpouring of this massacre resulted in a nationwide guerrilla campaign against the French army. At the end of war, the monarchy of Spain was restored and a national day of mourning was declared. Francisco De Goya painted two images based on this almost six years. In the first painting, titled, ‘The 2nd of May,1808’, Goya concentrated on the uprising itself; nearly replicating the compositional structure of Leonardo’s famous unfinished work, ‘Battle of Anghiari’ (interestingly, the original piece of work hasn’t been found, a copy by Peter Paul Rubens now serves the world). Yet, this painting doesn’t deal with the representation of death the way ‘The Third of May,1808’ does. The manifestation of ‘Death’ in its raw nature is dramatic and brutal in execution in the later one. As a matter of fact, Goya himself had shown French sympathies in the past, but the slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war made a profound impression on the artist.

In the distant background of the painting, none of the buildings can be identified with certainty. The vague depiction of a faded church tower looming in darkness tells the story of man’s inhumanity over his own kind. In contrast to the dark ambience and appearance of the painting, an intentionally placed lantern, sitting between the man in white shirt and the firing squad, is the only source of light in the painting, and dazzlingly illuminates the focal point of the paining. The man in white shirt, facing his death, become the symbol of Christian iconography-the Christ himself, which is why his white cloth doesn’t look dirty.He is wearing a clean, white shirt, which is a significant difference compared to the other Spaniards, wearing murky, blood stained clothes of dark colours. The man’s expressive face, which shows a strange mixed emotion of anguish and terrifying horror, however glares at the firing squad, in the face of his imminent death.

In contrast to the Spaniards, the French soldiers become mechanical or insect-like, merging into one faceless, many-legged creature, incapable of feeling human emotion-the depiction of death, without a face. The corpse on the foreground on the other hand, is an example of artistic license. When shot from a point-blank range, the figures should have propelled backwards but it might be the artist’s intention to create a gory effect for further enhancing the act of brutality.

The expression in each of the victims is also an aspect that Goya took great care of. The condemned men, each with different expression and reaction to his upcoming death creates an ambience of eeriness. A monk lowers his head and clasps his hand in prayer whereas his neighbour stares his killers in the face and the long line of victims stretches out to the dark.

As far as the technique is concerned, Goya’s novelty in colour and forms create an empathetic episode of the incident. Rather than going for a journalistic approach, he let his artistic mind take care of creating an emotional impact. As a matter of fact, the incident took place in daytime, whereas, Goya intentionally, preferred a nocturnal setting for such a nightmarish theme. The composition is dominated by the colours like, brown, black and grey and the free handling of spontaneous brushwork adds dimension to the gloominess.

It is worth mentioning that Goya has configured his figures in four distinct groups: those already dead, those about to be shot, those waiting to be placed before the rifles and the firing squad itself. The dead and those next to die actually form a single group, separated only by the horizontality of death and the verticality of life. The hands and arms of the victims play a major expressive and design role in the painting. The ‘V’ of helpless surrender of the spread, raised arms of the most visible victim in white shirt and yellow pants, about to be shot, is repeated in the inverted ‘V’ of the arms of the dead man bathed in blood in front of him. As an element of composition , the design structure of this particular anecdote means a lot.

(To be continued…)


The Third of May, 1808, Francisco De Goya

A detailed copy of Leonardo’s “The Battle of Anghiari” by Peter Paul Rubens

The 2nd of May,1808, Francisco De Goya

About the Author:

Rahul Majumder is an Art History major from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (2017). He completed his graduation in History of Art from Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati University. His Master’s research project deals with issues concerning about historiography, Narrativity, and stylistic formulation of Bengal Pata painting tradition. This is the first half of a two part series on the subject of Death and Martyrdom in Goya’s work.

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