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Interpreting Death and Martyrdom: ‘The Third of May, 1808’ – Part 2

Author: Rahul Majumder MVA, Art History, MSU Baroda

Talking about the interpretation of martyrdom, another French artist, Jacque Louis David from the era of revivalism of classical antiquity-Neo classicism, painted his contemporary incident of death, betrayal and martyrdom, nevertheless, far subtle than Goya’s depiction of death. The painting ‘Death of Marat’ (1793) was based on a tragic incident during the ‘Reign of Terror’ when his friend activist Jean Paul Marat was brutally murdered by of the member of rival party. His depiction of ‘Death of Marat’ was not only to serve as a record of an important event in the struggle to overthrow the monarchy but also to provide strong inspirational zeal and encouragement to the revolutionary forces.

Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793), a writer and David’s friend, was tragically assassinated in 1793. David depicted the martyred revolutionary after Charlotte Corday (1768–1793), a member of a rival political faction, stabbed him to death in his medicinal bath. (Marat suffered from a painful skin disease.) David presented the scene with truthfulness and precision. The cold neutral space above Marat’s figure slumped in the tub that creates an effect of chilling oppressiveness. The painter vividly placed narrative details—the knife, the wound, the blood, the letter with which the young woman gained entrance—to sharpen the sense of pain and outrage and to confront viewers with the heart-breaking scene itself. It is interesting to discover how David actually configured the position of the figure of Marat on the template of the figure of dead Christ based of the sculpture of ‘Pieta’ by Michelangelo-another depiction of epitome of martyrdom. However, David failed to create the brutality of the incident as it would be; it is chilling but does not invoke a scene of brutal murder in cold blood.

In this context, years later, Goya actually achieved the kind of impact that will encourage the viewers to feel the way the victims might have felt at standing in front of gunpoint and seeing fellow people die in seconds. To get the holistic idea of the incident of 1808, as a viewer we must understand the scenario in terms of its political and economic context.

The main protagonists in this incident were France and Spain. In 1799, in France, Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself First Consul of the French Republic and five years later he was crowned Emperor of France. Meanwhile in Spain King Charles IV had reigned supreme since 1788. He proved a weak and ineffectual leader who left the governing of the country to his wife, Maria Luisa of Parma and his Prime Minister, Manuel De Godoy, a wealthy nobleman who had taken office in 1792. Napoleon seeing an opportunity of gaining more territory suggested to Charles that they join forces, attack Spain’s neighbour, Portugal and divide up the conquered land between themselves, one-third to France, one-third to Spain and one-third to the Spanish prime minister Godoy, who would be given the title of Prince of Algarve. Godoy was seduced by such an idea and persuaded the king to agree to Napoleon’s plan. Unfortunately, Napoleon had an ulterior motive and a different scheme in mind when, in November 1807, 23,000 French troops marched into Spain unopposed under the guise of supporting the Spanish army prior to the joint attack on Portugal. Napoleon had hatched a plan with Charles’ eldest son Ferdinand that France would, with his help, overthrow the Spanish monarchy, which of course was his father, and the Spanish government of Godoy and Ferdinand would become King of Spain. It was not until February 1808 that it became apparent to the Spanish what Napoleon’s true plan was. The rest we all know.

Goya rendered the rest in gruesome manner. ‘The Second of May 1808’ completed in 1814, just a couple of months before he finished the companion work entitled ‘The Third of May 1808’. In the other painting, ‘The 2nd of May, 1808’ Goya depicted the street fighting that took place at the ‘Calle De Alcala near the Puerta Del Sol’ in the heart of Madrid. The Mamelukes, which were a fierce band of Muslim fighters in Napoleon’s French Imperial Guard, charged the crowd and the subsequent savagery was captured by Goya in his painting. In fact, Goya did not actually paint the picture until 1814 at which time the French army had been expelled from Spain. Goya chose to depict the people of Madrid armed just with knives and rough weapons as unknown heroes attacking the Mamelukes and a French cavalry officer.

Although the resemblance with the ‘Battle of Anghiari’ by Leonardo that we earlier discussed in the context of the configuration of the horses and the Mameluke riders, we have to keep in mind the fact that the resemblance is not direct but discreet in manner. According to some art historians who have been somewhat critical of Goya’s handling of this particular painting stated that the horses appear static and the figures in the painting seem posed. Of the two paintings, ‘The Third of May 1808’ is considered the better and more memorable. It seems so, as Goya had poured his heartfelt empathic zeal to the latter one.

'The Third of May, 1808' paved the way for the art of modern period because it broke away from the traditional notion and depiction of war. From the beginning of the art historical discourse we have seen that war had always been depicted through the genre of history painting, which were paintings based on historical, mythological, or biblical narratives and were regarded as the highest and noblest form of art once. In consequence, history paintings were rooted in historicism where artists paid strong attention to the institutions, styles, and themes of the past. Until then subject matters like contemporary times were rarely dealt with in history paintings. But Goya centres his painting on a contemporary event and doesn’t blend any kind of heroism in any of the men thus breaking the very notion of historical paintings.

His only intention was to produce and capture the essence of the horrifying incident so that people of future generation keeps get agitated while observing the painting and would be more empathetic about the history that bore such marks of heinous act.


Graham-Dixon, Andrew. (2008). Art: The Definitive Visual Guide. London: Dorling Kindersley Kleiner, Fred S. (2010). Art Through the Ages. Boston: Wadsworth Farthing, Stephen. (2010). Art: The Whole Story. London: Thames and Hudson Russel, John. (1974). The Meanings of Modern Art. London: Thames and Hudson


The Third of May, 1808, Francisco De Goya

The 2nd of May,1808, Francisco De Goya  

Death of Marat, 1793, Jacque Louis David  

About the Author:

Rahul Majumder is an Art Historian 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 last half of a two part series on the subject of Death and Martyrdom in Goya’s work.

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