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The Third of May, 1808

The Third of May, Francisco De Goya, 1814

Rising the hands up in the sky, a puzzled man gazes towards his death- this particular frame had been known as a symbol of martyrdom in the history of western art. Goya’s famous construal of a day, ‘The third of may',1808 is a depiction of an atrocity committed by the French army on the people of Madrid during the Peninsular war (1808-14). It all started in1807, when Napoleon went on conquering the world and tricked 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 as the alliance was nothing but a trick. Taking over the parts of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, became the new king of Spain. On 2nd May, 1808 there was a violent uprising against the invaders in the city of Madrid, killing numbers of French officials; however, the counter-attack was swift and far more brutal. On the day of 3rd May, 1808, French soldiers carried out a massacre, randomly murdering innocent citizens of Madrid and carried out executions on the hills of Principe Pio.

The outpouring of this massacre resulted into a nationwide guerrilla campaign against the French army. At the end of war, the monarchy of Spain was restored, a national day of mourning was declared. Francisco De Goya painted two images based on this almost six years later the nightmarish incident took place. In the first painting, titled, ‘The 2nd of May,1808’, Goya concentrated on the uprising itself; nearly replicating the compositional structure of Leonardo’s famous unfinished work, ‘Battle of Anghiari’ (interestingly, the original piece of work hasn’t been found, a copy by Peter Paul Rubens now serves the world). Yet, this Painting doesn’t deal with the representation of death, the way ‘The Third of May.1808’ does. The manifestation of ‘Death’ in its raw nature is dramatic and brutal in execution in later one. As a matter of fact, Goya himself had shown French sympathies in the past, but the slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war made a profound impression on the artist.

In the distant background of the painting, none of the buildings can be identified with certainty, the vague depiction of a faded church tower gloomed in darkness tell the story of men’s inhumanity over his own kind. In contrast with the dark ambience and appearance of the painting, an intentionally placed lantern, sits between the man in white shirt and the firing squad, is the only source of light in the painting, and dazzlingly illuminates the focal point of the paining. The man in white shirt, facing his death, become the symbol of Christian iconography- the Christ himself, which is why his white cloth doesn’t look dirty -he is wearing a clean, white shirt, which is a significant difference compared to the other Spaniards, wearing murky, blood stained cloths of dark colours. The man’s expressive face, which shows a strange mixed emotion of anguish and terrifying horror, however glares to the Firing squad, his imminent death.
In contrast to the Spaniards, the French soldiers, become mechanical or insect-like, merging into one faceless, many-legged creature, incapable of feeling human emotion- the depiction of death, without a face. The corpse on the foreground on the other hand, is an example of artistic license. When shot from a point-blank range, the figures should have propelled backwards but it might be artist’s intention to create a gory effect for further enhancing the act of brutality.
The expressions in each of the victims is also an aspect that Goya took great care of. The condemned men, each with different expressions and reactions to his upcoming death, create an eeriness ambience. A monk lowers his head and clasps his hand in prayer whereas his neighbour stares his killers in the face and the long line of victims stretches out to the dark.


As far as the technique is concerned, Goya’s novelty in colour and forms create an empathetic episode of the incident. Rather going from a journalistic approach, he let his artistic mind to take care of creating and emotional impact. As a matter of fact, the incident took place in daytime, whereas, Goya intently, preferred a nocturnal setting for such nightmarish theme. The composition is dominated by the colours like, browns, black and grey and the free handling of spontaneous brushwork adds dimension to the gloominess. It’s worth to mention that Goya has configured his figures in four distinct groups...those already dead, those about to be shot, those waiting to be placed before the rifles, and the firing squad itself. The dead and those next to die actually form a single group, separated only by the horizontality of death and the verticality of life. The hands and arms of the victims play major expressive and design role in the painting. The ‘V’ of helpless surrender of the spread, raised arms of the most visible victim in white shirt and yellow pants, about to be shot, is repeated in the inverted ‘V’ of the arms of the dead man bathed in blood in front of him. As an element of a composition design structure this particular anecdote means a lot.

Talking about the interpretation of martyrdom, another French artist, Jacque Louis David from the era of revivalism of classical antiquity-Neo classicism, painted his contemporary incident of death, betrayal and martyrdom, nevertheless, far subtle than Goya’s depiction of death. The painting ‘Death of Marat’ (1793) was based on a tragic incident during the ‘Reign of terror’ when his friend activist Jean Paul Marat was brutally murdered by of the member of rival party. His depiction of ‘Death of Marat’ was not only to serve as a record of an important event in the struggle to overthrow the monarchy but also to provide strong inspirational zeal and encouragement to the revolutionary forces.

Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793), a writer and David’s friend, was tragically assassinated in 1793. David depicted the martyred revolutionary after Charlotte Corday (1768– 1793), a member of a rival political faction, stabbed him to death in his medicinal bath. (Marat suffered from a painful skin disease.) David presented the scene with truthfulness and precision. The cold neutral space above Marat’s figure slumped in the tub that creates an effect of chilling oppressiveness. The painter vividly placed narrative details—the knife, the wound, the blood, the letter with which the young


woman gained entrance—to sharpen the sense of pain and outrage and to confront viewers with the heart-breaking scene itself. It is interesting to discover how David actually configured the position of the figure of Marat on the template of the figure of dead Christ based of the sculpture of ‘Pieta’ by Michelangelo-another depiction of epitome of martyrdom. However, David failed to create the brutality of the incident as it would be; its chilling but does not invoke a scene of brutal murder in cold blood.

In this context, years later, Goya actually achieved that kind of impact that will encourage to feel the viewers the way the victims might felt at standing in front of gunpoint and saw fellow people to die in seconds. To get the holistic idea of the incident of 1808, as a viewer we must understand the scenario in terms of its political and economic context. The main protagonists in this incident were France and Spain. In 1799, in France, Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself First Consul of the French Republic and five years later he was crowned Emperor of France. Meanwhile in Spain King Charles IV had reigned supreme since 1788. He had proved a weak and ineffectual leader who left the governing of the country to his wife, Maria Luisa of Parma and his Prime Minister, Manuel de Godoy, a wealthy nobleman who had taken office in 1792. Napoleon seeing an opportunity of gaining more territory suggested to Charles that they join forces, attack Spain’s neighbour, Portugal and divide up the conquered land between themselves, one third to France, one third to Spain and one third to the Spanish prime minister Godoy, who would be given the title of Prince of Algarve. Godoy was seduced by such an idea and persuaded the king to agree to Napoleon’s plan. Unfortunately, Napoleon had an ulterior motive and a different scheme in mind when, in November 1807, 23,000 French troops marched into Spain unopposed under the guise of supporting the Spanish army prior to the joint attack on Portugal. Napoleon had hatched a plan with Charles’ eldest son Ferdinand that France would, with his help, overthrow the Spanish monarchy, which of course was his father, and the Spanish government of Godoy and Ferdinand would become King of Spain. It was not until February 1808 that it became apparent to the Spanish what Napoleon’s true plans was. The rest we all know.


Goya rendered the rest in gruesome manner. ‘The Second of May 1808’ completed in 1814, just a couple of months before he finished the companion work entitled ‘The Third of May 1808’. In the other painting, ‘The 2nd of May, 1808’ Goya depicted the street fighting that took place at the ‘Calle de Alcala near the Puerta del Sol’ in the heart of Madrid. The Mamelukes, which were a fierce band of Muslim fighters in Napoleon’s French Imperial Guard, charged the crowd and the subsequent savagery was captured by Goya in his painting. In fact, Goya did not actually paint the picture until 1814 at which time the French army had been expelled from Spain. Goya chose to depict the people of Madrid armed just with knives and rough weapons as unknown heroes attacking the Mamelukes and a French cavalry officer. Although the resemblance with the ‘battle of Anghiari’ by Leonardo that we earlier discussed in the context of the configuration of the horses and the Memeluke riders, we have to keep in mind the fact that the resemblance is not direct but discreet in manner. According to some art historians who have been somewhat critical of Goya’s handling of this particular


painting stated that the horses appear static and the figures in the painting seem posed. Of the two paintings, the Third of May 1808 is considered the better and more memorable. It seems so, as Goya had poured his heartfelt empathic zeal to the latter one.

‘Third of May, 1808 ‘paved the way for the art of modern period because it broke away from the traditional notion and depiction of war. From the beginning of the art historical discourse we have seen that war had always been depicted through the genre of history painting, which were paintings based on historical, mythological, or biblical narratives and were regarded as the highest and noblest form of art once. In consequence, history paintings were rooted in historicism where artists paid strong attention to the institutions, styles, and themes of the past. Until then subject matters Contemporary times were rarely dealt with in history paintings. But Goya centres his painting around a contemporary event and doesn’t blend any kind of heroism in any of the men thus breaking the very notion of Historical paintings. His only intention was to produce and capture the essence of the horrifying incident so that people of future generation keep get agitated while observing the painting and would be more empathetic about the history that bore such marks of heinous act.


  • Graham-Dixon, Andrew. (2008). Art: The Definitive Visual Guide. London: Dorling Kindersley

  • Kleiner, Fred S. (2010). Art Through the Ages. Boston: Wadsworth.

  • Farthing, Stephen. (2010). Art: The Whole Story. London: Thames and Hudson. Russel, John. (1974). The Meanings of Modern Art. London: Thames and Hudson.


A detailed copy of Leonardo's "The Battle of Anghiari" by Peter Paul Rubens

A detailed copy of Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari by Peter Paul Rubens

Death of Marat, 1793

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793.

The 2nd of May,1808, Francisco De Goya

The 2nd of May,1808, Francisco De Goya

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