The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons

 Joseph Mallord Willliam Turner, The Burning of the House of Lords,  1835

In The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, Joseph Mallord William Turner uses his knowledge of romanticism to re-tell the story of a smoldering evening witnessed as a face in a crowd of thousands from afar.

An ancient accounting system in the British Parliament, not having been used since 1826, left two heavy bundles of tally sticks to be disposed of. When the highly-qualified Clerks of Works (tradesmen) were asked to carry out the duty, they decided the stoves in the basement quarters of the House of Lords ought to do the job. The same evening, Mrs. Wright, deputy housekeeper, while giving a tour, noticed the floor being uncomfortably hot and smoke rising right out of the floorboards. The workmen reassured her that there wasn't any reason to panic and that they would put out the fire when the job was done by 5 p.m. Unfortunately, The House of Lords was left with a ticking over-heated bomb.

By 6:00 p.m., Mrs. Wright heard screams coming from outside saying that a fire was taking over the Parliament. An hour later, the streets by the Thames would be flooded with every London dweller to witness the flames engulf both Parliament buildings. Other unfortunate surrounding buildings would also be consumed. Soldiers held lines secure around the fire, as the masses of citizens swelled to uncontrollable numbers.

Quickly on site, Turner, arrived, eyes open wide, with pencil and paper in hand. He would later turn these sketches into out-of-proportion paintings. Attempts to put out the fire failed due to a low tide, prohibiting enough water to be pumped to land and make fire-fighting gear too difficult to haul on the river.

The fire finally subsided, but it consumed all it could manage. Turner over-exaggerated the power of the fire to demonstrate and romanticize earthly elements overcoming man. He would go on to paint many different versions of the Burning Houses with heavy contrasting burnt oranges and smokey grays.

The fire-fighting efforts did however manage to save Westminister Hall, the Jewel Tower and the Undercroft Chapel. And here is something to think about: while Turner depicts nature beating civilization, how would God play into all this church saving?
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The Hanged Monk

Francisco Goya, The Hanged Monk, c. 1810-1812

The work The Hanged Monk by Francisco Goya has a troubling history that goes beyond the brutality it depicts. Variously attributed to dates between 1810 and 1812, the painting was inherited (along with a significant portion of Goya’s paintings and prints) by Goya’s son, Xavier, after the death of Goya’s wife Josefa in 1812. The group of related paintings given over to Xavier was marked with an X9, visible in the bottom left of the work.

That date holds some particular meaning, as falls in the middle of the Pennisular War, when the French, led by Napoleon, ruled over Spain. Goya, a Spanish court painter for Charles III and IV, would later vehemently deny that he cooperated with or assisted the French during the war from 1808-1814. Almost as a protest – though much later – Goya painted his famous Third of May, 1808, which shows French soldiers slaughtering unarmed civilians.

Six months after the crackdown on Madrid, Napoleon offered the following to the newly-approved Mayor of Madrid, “I have hastened to adopt measures calculated to tranquillize all ranks of the citizens, knowing how painful the state of uncertainty is to all men collectively and individually. I have preserved the spiritual orders, but with a limitation of the number of monks. There is not a single intelligent person who is not of the opinion that they were too numerous.” Napoleon continues, “Priests may guide the minds of men, but must exercise no temporal or corporeal jurisdiction over the citizens.”

The painting, ironically, demonstrates that French soldiers have no problem exercising that power.
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