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Goya, Third of May, 1808

by Christine Zappella
Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas, 8' 9" x 13' 4" (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)
Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas, 8' 9" x 13' 4" (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)

Napoleon puts his brother on the throne of Spain

In 1807, Napoleon, bent on conquering the world, brought Spain’s king, Charles IV, into alliance with him in order to conquer Portugal. Napoleon’s troops poured into Spain, supposedly just passing through. But Napoleon’s real intentions soon became clear: the alliance was a trick. The French were taking over. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, was the new king of Spain.
Francisco Goya, The Second of May, 1808, 1814, oil on canvas, 104.7 x 135.8" (Museo del Prado, photo: Soerfm, public domain)
Francisco Goya, The Second of May, 1808, 1814, oil on canvas, 104.7 x 135.8" (Museo del Prado, photo: Soerfm, public domain)

The 2nd and 3rd of May, 1808

On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled. On May 3, these Spanish freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred by the French. Their blood literally ran through the streets of Madrid. Even though Goya had shown French sympathies in the past, the slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war made a profound impression on the artist. He commemorated both days of this gruesome uprising in paintings. Although Goya’s Second of May (above) is a tour de force of twisting bodies and charging horses reminiscent of Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, his The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid is acclaimed as one of the great paintings of all time, and has even been called the world’s first modern painting.
Detail, Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas, (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)
Detail, Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas, (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)

Death awaits

We see row of French soldiers aiming their guns at a Spanish man, who stretches out his arms in submission both to the men and to his fate. A country hill behind him takes the place of an executioner’s wall. A pile of dead bodies lies at his feet, streaming blood. To his other side, a line of Spanish rebels stretches endlessly into the landscape. They cover their eyes to avoid watching the death that they know awaits them. The city and civilization is far behind them. Even a monk, bowed in prayer, will soon be among the dead.
Detail, Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)
Detail, Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)

Transforming Christian iconography

Goya’s painting has been lauded for its brilliant transformation of Christian iconography and its poignant portrayal of man’s inhumanity to man. The central figure of the painting, who is clearly a poor laborer, takes the place of the crucified Christ; he is sacrificing himself for the good of his nation. The lantern that sits between him and the firing squad is the only source of light in the painting, and dazzlingly illuminates his body, bathing him in what can be perceived as spiritual light. His expressive face, which shows an emotion of anguish that is more sad than terrified, echoes Christ’s prayer on the cross, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” Close inspection of the victim’s right hand also shows stigmata, referencing the marks made on Christ’s body during the Crucifixion.
Detail, Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)
Detail, Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)
The man’s pose not only equates him with Christ, but also acts as an assertion of his humanity. The French soldiers, by contrast, become mechanical or insect-like. They merge into one faceless, many-legged creature incapable of feeling human emotion. Nothing is going to stop them from murdering this man. The deep recession into space seems to imply that this type of brutality will never end.
Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas, 8' 9" x 13' 4" (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)
Francisco Goya, The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, 1808, 1814–15, oil on canvas, 8' 9" x 13' 4" (Museo del Prado, Madrid, photo: Botaurus, public domain)

Not heroism in battle

This depiction of warfare was a drastic departure from convention. In 18th century art, battle and death was represented as a bloodless affair with little emotional impact. Even the great French Romanticists were more concerned with producing a beautiful canvas in the tradition of history paintings, showing the hero in the heroic act, than with creating emotional impact. Goya’s painting, by contrast, presents us with an anti-hero, imbued with true pathos that had not been seen since, perhaps, the ancient Roman sculpture of The Dying Gaul. Goya’s central figure is not perishing heroically in battle, but rather being killed on the side of the road like an animal. Both the landscape and the dress of the men are nondescript, making the painting timeless. This is certainly why the work remains emotionally charged today.

Legacy

Future artists also admired The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, and both Manet and Picasso used it for inspiration in their own portrayals of political murders (Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximilian and Picasso’s Massacre in Korea). Along with Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s Third of May remains one of the most chilling images ever created of the atrocities of war, and it is difficult to imagine how much more powerful it must have been in the pre-photographic era, before people were bombarded with images of warfare in the media. A powerful anti-war statement, Goya is not only criticizing the nations that wage war on one another, but is also admonishing us, the viewers, for being complicit in acts of violence, which occur not between abstract entities like “countries,” but between human beings standing a few feet away from one another.

Additional resources:

Essay by Christine Zappella

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  • leafers tree style avatar for user Joe
    Why is this painting considered modern art?
    (8 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Doris L.
    What is that yellow box-looking-thing in the painting?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user bartsimpson12345678900
    Why Did Goya Choose to paint this particular moment?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Third_of_May_1808

      Goya had by nature an instinctive dislike of authority.He witnessed the subjugation of his countrymen by the French troops.During these years he painted little, although the experiences of the occupation provided inspiration for drawings that would form the basis for his prints The Disasters of War

      In February 1814, after the final expulsion of the French, Goya approached the provisional government with a request to "perpetuate by means of his brush the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the Tyrant of Europe". His proposal accepted, Goya began work on The Third of May. It is not known whether he had personally witnessed either the rebellion or the reprisals, despite many later attempts to place him at the events of either day.
      (3 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    "Close inspection of the victim’s right hand also shows stigmata, referencing the marks made on Christ’s body during the Crucifixion."

    Why is there a stigmata only on the right hand? Wouldn't stigmata appear as a hole on both hands, especially since both hands are clearly visible?
    (3 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Wim Oudakker
    The essay states that "...these Spanish freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred..", but in the previous video I believe it was suggested that the people being executed were random, innocent people from Madrid? Do we know?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Jack Markham
    What technique was used to paint The Third of May, 1808
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user johnrodriguezelectric
    why did the ladies love to stay without clothes on?
    (2 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Nicholas Marshall
    With the man that is covering his eyes to the right of the man resembling Jesus, there seems to be a symbol on his left boot. Is that just a tailor's mark or is that a more significant meaning to that symbol?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lukemadrid
    As the "lantern" is the only light-source in "Third of May" has it been observed the cube unfolded is a crucifix? Is this an example of the "veiled Christian symbolism?" What else is there?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user crystalgillis
    I'm not sure Goya would have thought that he was necessarily admonishing the individual for being "complicit in acts of violence." Many times Goya went along with whoever happened to be in power so that-like the rest of us, as individuals-he wouldn't be killed. It would be hard-pressing to say that if he were drafted he would refuse to fight. There will always be crazy rulers-war is not 99% of humanity's fault, it's the 1% who happen to be in the position to force everyone to make a choice to defend oneself, one's family, friends, and neighbors. They do not wish to play a "game" of sacrifice to prove a point that fundamentally everyone knows and can be squashed by the next crazy ruler. We need to fix the fundamental issues, not blame individuals. Wouldn't you agree?
    (1 vote)
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