‘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 Judgement. 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.
Hughes, Robert. 2004. Goya (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)
Tomlinson, Janis. 1994. Francisco Goya Y Lucientes, 1746–1828 (London: Phaidon)
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?