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.
Schulz, Andrew. 2005. Goya’s Caprichos: Aesthetics, Perception, and the Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 139–40
2 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2And many will follow their licentiousness, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. 3And in their greed they will exploit you with false words; from of old their condemnation has not been idle, and their destruction has not been asleep.
4 For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; 5if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorʹrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; 7and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked 8(for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), 9then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.
Bold and wilful, they are not afraid to revile the glorious ones, 11whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a reviling judgment upon them before the Lord. 12But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant, will be destroyed in the same destruction with them, 13suffering wrong for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation, carousing with you. 14They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 15Forsaking the right way they have gone astray; they have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beʹor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, 16but was rebuked for his own transgression; a dumb ass spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.
17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved. 18For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. 19They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved. 20For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire.