The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid (The Executions) by Francisco de Goya

Francisco de Goya

The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid (The Executions), 1814, Oil on canvas, 268 x 347 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, P000749, Museo Nacional del Prado / Art Resource, NY

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A Time for War

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Michael Banner

‘There is’, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, ‘a time to love, and a time to hate, a time for war, and a time for peace’ (3:8), these being the last two in the fourteen antitheses by which he characterizes human life from birth to death.

Francisco de Goya’s The Third of May depicts the day of terrible retribution which followed Napoleon’s military occupation of Madrid in 1808. Its companion piece—The Second of May—shows Madrid’s heroic but hopeless resistance to the occupying forces. Both canvases, painted two months apart, tell of a time of hate and war.

In The Third of May an anonymous firing squad efficiently goes about its business in the pitch dark of the night. To the left, beneath an impenetrable sky, is the beginning of what will eventually be a heap of corpses, high enough perhaps in due course to rival the hill against which the executions occur. The blood of the dead and dying pours out on the bare earth. Behind the raised rifles and stretching off into the distance is a queue of those awaiting their turn to die, the first of whom stands head in hands, like one of the damned from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. The focus of the composition is the swarthy figure kneeling at left, his arms extended and bulging eyes widened in terror, in the very last moment before his death.

Some have seen in his extended arms a reference to Christ on the cross (Tomlinson 1994: 185), while the wound in his right hand has suggested stigmata (Hughes 2004: 314), and the lamp which illuminates the scene might put us in mind of those the soldiers carry to Gethsemane. It seems doubtful, however, that Goya asks us to find any redemptive meaning in this grim scene unfolding under the blackest of skies.

Certainly the writer of Ecclesiastes fathoms no meaning in the contraries of love and hate, war and peace, being born and dying, and so on. This string of events may be God’s determination, but even if so, it has no obvious rhyme, reason, or resolution.

 

References

Hughes, Robert. 2004. Goya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Tomlinson, Janis. 1994. Francisco Goya Y Lucientes, 17461828 (London: Phaidon)