The Third of May 1808 by Goya

The Third of May 1808 by Goya (1814)

My Daily Art Display featured painting for today is the second of a set of two works by Goya entitled The Third of May 1808.  If you have just come to this website I suggest you read yesterday’s blog first as it is a prequel to this painting.

Yesterday we looked at Goya’s painting entitled The Second of May 1808 which was a depiction of an uprising of the people of Madrid against the Napoleonic forces including some of Napoleon’s fiercest fighter from the French Imperial Guard, the Egyptian Mamalukes.  The rebellion was put down after several hours of fierce fighting with loss of lives on both sides.  The French commander, Murat, was in no doubt as to the fate of the captured rebels unequivocally stating:

”…The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance. All those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot…”

Today’s painting is a depiction by Goya of the promised French reprisals.  Hundreds of Spaniards were rounded up on the night of May 2nd and the next day and taken to various locations and executed by firing squads.  The painting is based on the executions which took place at one of these sites, the hill of Principe Pio on the outskirts of Madrid.

The scene is set at night.  The menacing sky is pitch-black and there is not a star in sight.  This alone adds menace to the painting.   Nearly a third of the canvas is black.   This blackened background darkens the painting but we can just make out the silhouette of the town and another group of people which may be inquisitive on-lookers or may even be the next batch of rebels destined for the firing squad.   The scene is only lit up by the light from the lantern which lies on the ground between the two sets of men. See how the rays of light from the lantern and the shadows form a dividing line on the ground between the killers and those to be killed.   The condemned are lit up by the lantern’s light. The lantern as a source of illumination in art was extensively used by Baroque artists, and later perfected by the Master of chiaroscuro, Caravaggio.

Before us, we see two groups of men, on the left hand side of the painting we see the rebels and, across a narrow gap, on the right hand side of the painting we see a line of French soldiers, with their shako headgear,  engulfed in shadow, rigidly poised with their guns with fixed bayonets  pointing at the condemned.  The soldiers, almost like robots, are solidly lined with immaculate military precision whereas the condemned are crumbling before their very eyes.   We are seeing the soldiers almost from behind and the faces of these executioners are hidden from view.  Goya has probably painted them like this to emphasise that these men are simply dehumanized perpetrators of brutality and tyranny.

The Condemned Man

Goya has carefully painted the condemned as individuals each showing different reactions to their fate.  One stares out defiantly at his executioners and another, a monk, we see with his hands clasped before him, praying for his soul.  The central figure within the bunch of rebels, with his white shirt and yellow trousers is lit up by the lantern and is the main focus of the painting.  His face is racked with terror and we see him kneeling amidst the bloodied corpses of his executed colleagues. His plain white shirt contrasts against his sun-burnt face, which gives the impression that he had been used to working outdoors in the fields as a simple labourer.   Look at his stance.


His arms are flung wide in what must be presumed as an act of defiance or maybe it is terror.  Note how Goya has depicted this.  His arms are spread as if he has been crucified and on close inspection of the palm of his right hand we see the marks of the stigmata, the bodily marks, in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ.  This was Goya’s way of portraying that this man and his comrades were martyrs, innocents battling against the persecution of a foreign power.  This condemned man was the very man we saw in yesterday’s painting, holding his dagger aloft about to thrust it into a Mamaluke soldier which he is dragging from his horse.

On the ground in front of the line of condemned men lie the blood-soaked bodies of those already executed.   Face down in a pool of his own blood is the rebel we witnessed in yesterday’s painting, who had just run his dagger into the shoulders of the white horse.   To the right of the white-shirted man we see a group of cowering rebels awaiting their fate.  They have been marched up the hill and have now come face to face with their fate.  They can hardly bear to look at the scene before them.

By the time of the painting’s conception, the public imagination had made the rioters symbols of heroism and patriotism. The two paintings by Goya were not glorious scenes of a great victorious battle but simple acts of anonymous heroism in the face of defeat.   Although I have highlighted the two paintings of the series it is thought that at one time the set may have comprised of four works – the two I have featured and one depicting the revolt at the royal palace, the other being a painting depicting the defence of the artillery barracks.  The fact that these latter two paintings have disappeared points to the possibility that they were destroyed by Spanish officials who were unhappy with the depiction of the popular uprising.

The painting received a mixed reception when first exhibited a good many years later, with critics pointing out its technical flaws with its perspective and the lack of realism.  Critics pointed out that the distance between executioners and victims was far too small and the fact that the power of the shot hitting its victim would probably propel the rebel backwards and not forwards as shown in the painting.  The other lack of realism lies in the fact that in reality the executions were carried out in the day time and not at night but I am sure Goya chose night as the time of day for his painting to make the painting more spectacular.   Other critics come to Goya’s defence pointing out that the painting was not supposed to be technically accurate but the way the artist had depicted the scene and his use of chiaroscuro added to overall effectiveness of the painting.