John 19:19-22 Reinscribing The Cross by Francisco de Goya

Francisco de Goya

Que pico de Oro! (What a golden beak!), from the series Los Caprichos, 1799, Etching and aquatint, 217 x 151 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1921-2074, Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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Loud Boasts of Folly

Commentary by

Among Francisco de Goya’s most enduring contributions to the history of art are his biting critiques of the hypocrisies of Spanish society. Intellectually formed in the midst of the European Enlightenment, Goya’s optimism about the possibilities for social and political progress diminished as the French Revolution devolved into tyranny and massacre. His infamous Los Caprichos (a series of eighty prints published in 1799) diagnoses the troubles that continued to plague the Spanish social order, including hereditary power, arranged marriage, and folkloric superstition.

Like many of the prints in this series, What a Golden Beak! (Que pico de Oro!) could be interpreted in several (potentially contradictory) ways. A group of grotesquely-rendered figures crowd around a podium on which an owl is perched, beak open and one leg raised. At first glance, the expressions and gestures of the huddled figures suggest rapturous enthusiasm. However, one could just as easily interpret the closed eyes and half-open mouths as slumber brought on by boredom. Scholars have generally identified the occasion as an academic or medical lecture. A viewer might equally liken the posture of the owl before the huddled crowd to a minister pontificating before his congregation.

2 Peter 2 speaks urgently to the consequences of following false teachers and prophets. The final verses offer a litany of invective against those who utter ‘loud boasts of folly’, who offer freedom, but ‘themselves are slaves of corruption’ (2 Peter 2:18–20). Like Goya’s print (and many others in Los Caprichos), Peter’s letter likens the impulses of false prophets to the base actions of lower beings: they are ‘irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant’. They ‘will be destroyed in the same destruction’ as the base creatures they resemble (2 Peter 2:12).

The challenge of identifying those who deal in corruption and folly is at the core of Goya’s print, and its ambiguity is part of what makes the image so powerfully complex. Although Goya embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment, his works often suggest that blind adherence to pure reason may result in its own set of horrors.

 

References

Schulz, Andrew. 2005. Goya’s Caprichos: Aesthetics, Perception, and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 139–40