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.
3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
9What gain has the worker from his toil?
10 I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. 11He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13also that it is God’s gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil. 14I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him. 15That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
16 Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. 18I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them that they are but beasts. 19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. 20All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth? 22So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work, for that is his lot; who can bring him to see what will be after him?