For Everything a Season
Reversals of Fortune
Commentary by Michael Banner
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.
‘The Business that God Has Given’
Commentary by Michael Banner
The writer of Ecclesiastes has ‘seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with’ (3:10), and asks ‘What gain has the worker from his toil?’ (v.9). He concludes ‘that it is God’s gift to man that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil’ (v.13)—and this rather spare philosophy just about exhausts what he has to share with the reader by way of encouragement.
If we try to imagine how the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the world, Rembrandt van Rijn’s poignant late portrait of himself at an easel seems to serve us well. Rembrandt holds us with a steady but dispassionate gaze. There is none of the self-confidence, optimism, or ambition of a younger man. His face is calm but care worn, his brow furrowed, and under his eyes are the bags, and at his neck the slight folds, which suggest advancing age.
He was fifty-four, and although he would live another nine years, he had already experienced many of the vicissitudes which led the writer of Ecclesiastes to his unblinkingly dismal philosophy of life. His early celebrity and success had faded; his dearly loved wife had died twelve years before, along with three of the four children she had borne; and Rembrandt had faced bankruptcy and the sale of his house and possessions.
The artist’s self-portrait suggests resignation more than anything else. There is little suggestion of consolation, comfort, or joy. Except perhaps in one regard. Though Rembrandt wears elements of the lavish costumes and props in which he often dressed both his models and himself, he presents himself to us quite unequivocally as a painter, fully engaged with his work. He holds a palette and brushes in his left hand, and his maulstick in his right, and on his head, bathed in a pure bright light of a kind which hints at benediction, he wears the simple white cap of a painter.
Withdrawn to the small world of his studio, we here see the artist calmly and unexpectantly pursuing his work in the face of what had and would yet beset him—in the spirit recommended by Ecclesiastes.
A Time for War
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 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)
Francisco de Goya :
Allegory of the City of Madrid, 1810 , Oil on canvas
Rembrandt van Rijn :
Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1660 , Oil on canvas
Francisco de Goya :
The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid (The Executions), 1814 , Oil on canvas
The Opacity of History
Commentary by Michael Banner
Every 2nd of May is, rather predictably, followed by a 3rd of May—but how the events of these or any two days unfold is more uncertain. ‘Unfold’, however, is not really the right word, certainly not as the writer of Ecclesiastes sees it, since unfolding suggests a certain sort of pattern, order, or even progress, which he does not discern.
Francisco de Goya’s two pictures referring to these dates may suggest a similar agnosticism, albeit they do so in two different ways. The painting of the terrible events of the 3rd of May 1808 seems to offer nothing by way of hope for the future. While for the early Christians the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church (Tertullian Apology 50), the blood of those executed on the 3rd of May in retribution for the events of the previous day seems simply to flow away into the ground. And in Goya’s Allegory of Madrid, it seems little more than happenstance that the words ‘Dos de Mayo’ are what ended up in the medallion held and trumpeted by the party of angels. Different royal portraits had come and gone in that medallion, as had the word ‘Constitución’, before ‘Dos de Mayo’ took its hallowed place. Thus the angelic party is left, somewhat unfortunately, to support whatever history throws at them, and are certainly not its determinants.
Taking this philosophy (or perhaps anti-philosophy) of history, the writer of Ecclesiastes recommends the moderation of one’s expectations, such that one can take pleasure in the rather modest but most easily attainable goods of existence—food, drink, and work. Rembrandt van Rijn, as represented before his canvas, seems a practitioner of this existential stance. He holds fast to the task he has in hand, and perhaps to the only thing to which he can himself endeavour to hold fast (namely his work). He seems resigned to what had been—and what else may yet be—taken from him. But for all that, he gives himself resolutely and devotedly to the work he has undertaken.
The patient acceptance of the way the world goes, no matter that as it goes it seems indifferent to human hopes, dreams and loves, represents a rather unusual attitude from the perspective of either Testament. It is markedly different from the indignation at wrong doing found in the Psalms or Job, for example, and from the impatient protests and demands for social justice made by such prophets as Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah. And if the New Testament epistles counsel patience, they do so while holding to rather deeper and clearer hopes for redemption than are voiced by the preacher of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is closer to the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius (ruled 121–80 CE) or the humanism of Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) than it is to the thought of any other biblical writer—its hopes are distinctly this-worldly, modest, and unassuming, and tempered by an expectation that suffering is the common human lot. And at times it sounds notes of almost unrivalled gloominess:
And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. (4:2–3)
Ecclesiastes’s sense of the opacity of history to purely human understanding (as distinct from the limited horizons of its hopes), is not, however, an otherwise unbiblical theme. Biblically speaking, God may make himself known in human history, but not through it. Or to put it another way, history may be the occasion for God’s revelation, but that revelation is not a matter of the unfolding of some pattern of progress readable from the face of human history itself. The secret of history is just that, and is revealed in God’s deeds and words, which serve to claim human history, rather than simply confirm it in the way it goes.
Tertullian. Apology. 2008. Tertullian Apologetical Works and Minucius Felix Octavius, Fathers of the Church, vol. 10, trans. by Emily Joseph Daly, Rodolph Arbesmann, and Edwin A. Quain (Washington: Catholic University of American Press), pp. 7–126