In 1810, Francisco de Goya was commissioned by the town council of Madrid to paint ‘our present sovereign’, Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, imposed on Spain in 1808 as King José I. A benignly smiling crowned maiden, her right arm draped against the coat of arms of Madrid, points to the frame that formerly contained this portrait, held by two angels. The sovereign’s fame is trumpeted by a further angel; yet another crowns his image with laurels of victory. At the feet of the personification of Madrid is a contented dog, presumably representing the people’s consent to the angels’ nomination of Joseph.
But in 1812, two years after the commission, Napoleon’s army was routed and Joseph hastily decamped. Goya was required to paint the single word ‘Constitución’ over the king—referring to the liberal constitution which had been ratified on the king’s departure. The fortunes of war being what they are, Joseph then returned, and Goya restored the profile—only for the king to be expelled, for one last time, in 1813, and for the word ‘Constitución’ to return.
That was the end of Goya’s involvement—but not of the saga. For when the king who had been deposed by Joseph, Ferdinand VII, returned to the throne, his profile was painted in, until the word ‘Constitución’ made a final come back some years later, when the liberals were again ascendant. But this inscription, in turn, was displaced in 1843 by the words we now see, ‘Dos de Mayo’ (2nd of May): a simple, patriotic, and uncontentious reference to the hallowed day on which the people of Madrid had offered brave but hopeless resistance to the onslaughts of Napoleon’s army back in 1808.
‘For everything there is a season’ announces Ecclesiastes in the fine poetry with which chapter three opens. But the fourteen antitheses of this passage, covering human activity from birth to death, tell us that history itself is not so much a poetic composition as a series of contradictions and reversals—to which the farcical burlesque of the painting, repainting, and overpainting of the framed medallion bears its own witness.