Beauty in Death: The Third of May 1808

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Beauty in Death

An Investigation of the Divine Demise 
Curated by Tommy Dunn

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814

Obviously, Goya’s painting differs from all of the other paintings I have chosen. While the others depict the killings of traditional Christian martyrs, I thought this painting would work for a modern interpretation of my theme—it provides a great example of a modern martyrdom. The scene in this painting occurred just after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1807-1808. Napoleon had proven a rather popular dictator in Spain for some time, helping to set up something of a puppet ruler in the new King Ferdinand. However, the people quickly grew tired of Napoleon’s rule. On the second of May in 1808, they staged armed rebellions against the tyrant in Madrid. Napoleon’s general issued a decree that anyone caught with a weapon in the uprisings would be shot to death the next day. French soldiers executed many this way on May 3rd, 1808.

Goya’s depiction of these executions is one of the most famous paintings in the world. The young Spanish rebel stands with his hands held high in the air, declaring his innocence. The men to his left all await a similar fate. Goya skillfully uses light/dark contrast, brilliantly illuminating in white the boy about to be executed to highlight his innocence. His fallen comrades lie on the ground to his right. The French soldiers lean menacingly towards the victim. Goya hides their faces—they appear as inhuman killing machines. Most disturbing by far about this painting is the face of the unknown victim. Pure fear plays across his face as he stares down his certain doom. The more I look at this painting, the more emotionally powerful it becomes. It forces the viewer to realize that this is the end of the line for this young life. I think that this is why I like this painting so much. Goya does a supreme job of conveying a sense of loss and destruction as the French soldiers senselessly kill hundreds of civilians. While he may not have been holy, I think that this poor man is the true definition of a martyr. He died defenseless for a cause he truly believed in. And his death carries with it a certain sense of purpose. He may have died without accomplishing his goal, but the war raged on and his people eventually prevailed five years later. Goya memorialized this hero’s death in one of the most emotionally powerful paintings ever created.

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