The Spanish artist, subject of a major exhibition at the National Gallery, both celebrated and satirised Catholicism. Was he the most hypocritical artist who ever lived?

On the face of it, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was one of the most hypocritical artists who ever lived. The son of a gilder and impoverished aristocrat from Zaragoza in Spain, Goya was happy to fulfil religious commissions which could benefit him – an early painting, Christ Crucified, granted him admission to the prestigious Royal Academy of San Fernando. But he was just as ready to criticise the Church when he believed that it had failed him.

In one of his more polemical etchings, a prelate is treading a frayed tightrope over a startled crowd, his arms spread wide like a bat and his expression fixed like a sullen death mask. “May the rope break” read Goya’s words at the bottom of the sheet.

But go back a few years in Goya’s biography to 1817, and he is painting canvases of the Crucifixion and saints Justa and Rufina for Seville Cathedral.

If Goya’s relationship with the Catholic Church is best described as “complicated”, it is all the more inspiring for it. Goya witnessed the horrors of the Peninsular War and the Spanish Inquisition, but far from allowing disillusionment to overwhelm him, he stridently committed his doubts to paper. But what look like renouncements of religion are often, in fact, exercises in reconciliation.

Goya found success as an artist when he was appointed court painter to Charles III, Charles IV and finally Ferdinand VII. A major new exhibition of his portraits at the National Gallery features around 70 of his intimate, softly lit portraits of royals, nobles and intellectuals, including the lively Duke and Duchess of Osuna and their Children, complete with toy carriage and imaginary hobby horse.

It is hard to imagine that, at the same time as Goya was producing many of these affectionate studies, he was beginning work on a suite of 80 etchings, Los Caprichos, presenting his nightmarish visions of the world. Railing vehemently against the folly of superstition and human frailty, Goya depicted dark scenes such as a woman attempting to extract teeth from a hanged man’s mouth for good luck (Out Hunting for Teeth).

The prints resound with Goya’s frustration at the backwardness of contemporary thought under the Ancien Régime. A keen advocate of the Spanish Enlightenment, Goya counted among his close friends the philosopher, poet and statesman Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, popularly known as “The Melancholic”. With the death of Charles III in 1788 and the beginning of the French Revolution the following year, Jovellanos was exiled under suspicion of being a French sympathiser. Following his return to Madrid, however, he worked with Goya to promote religious reform by renovating the royal hermitage of San Antonio de la Florida. The scenes they chose for the frescoes were telling, given their interest in making a fresh start in the Church after the troubles of recent times: St Anthony of Padua resurrecting a man who had been murdered in order to ask him to confirm the identity of his killer.

But however much Goya approved of moral reform, he was no supporter of the Spanish Inquisition, which Ferdinand IV revived when he came to the throne following the defeat of the French in 1813. Goya painted Ferdinand as a haughty ruler, his feet facing forward, his body twisting untrustworthily away from the viewer.

Goya came close to experiencing the weight of the Inquisition himself when two “obscene” paintings (one of them a nude painted for Manuel Godoy, the Spanish prime minister, in response to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus) were traced to him. Fortunately, the proceedings appear to have been dropped soon after they began.

Did the Inquisition turn Goya against the Church? The debate about who pulled the strings during the Inquisition has reignited in recent decades, particularly since the Vatican opened the archives of the Holy Office in 1998. That the papacy had ceased to play a role in the Inquisition by Goya’s time is now broadly accepted. Historian Thomas Madden argues that the Inquisition was “an arm of the Spanish monarchy” quite separate from the Church as an institution.

Not that this stopped Goya from painting a flagrant scene of an Inquisition tribunal peopled by monks and “penitents” (those deemed heretics) dressed in paper tunics and flame-flickering conical hats. But nor did the horror of the Inquisition prevent Goya from forging close relationships with a number of friars and cardinals.

The artist took refuge with an Aragonese Jesuit priest, José Duaso y Latre, in 1824, when the secret police were hunting down liberals in Spain. Such was his apparent admiration for Duaso that Goya decided to paint his portrait, but restarted it four times before finally capturing him in his cassock and insignia of the Order of Charles III.

He also created a series of paintings of Pedro de Zaldivia, a heroic Franciscan monk who famously fired a shot at a bandit.

But Goya’s relationship with his faith is perhaps best compared with that of the Augustinian friar Juan Fernández de Rojas, another close friend. Like Goya, Fernández satirised many aspects of society, including the Church, as if by highlighting the problems he could go some way towards solving them. Goya turned to him for advice when he was painting and drawing, and might well have been inspired by his treatises on modern theology.

Seemingly frustrated by his lack of progress, however, Goya created a number of works in which he showed how close he came to losing his faith altogether. In 1808, French troops invaded Spain, triggering an uprising by the Spanish people. Although Goya hoped that the invasion would have a liberating effect on Spanish custom, he was shaken by the bloodshed it wreaked. In The Third of May 1808, he painted Napoleon’s soldiers executing the Spanish resisters. A lantern, symbolising the Enlightenment, lights up the scene. In the background, the church towers of María la Real and San Nicolás near Madrid loom emptily against the night sky.

But Goya did not give up. In the final decade of his life, he returned with some passion to religious themes, painting a moving altarpiece of St Joseph of Calasanz for the church attached to the ecclesiastical institution where he had studied as a boy.

He also produced a self-portrait in which he presented himself ailing in the arms of his doctor. In the background of the portrait are the shadowy figures of three men. To some viewers of the painting, these figures are devil-like. To others, they are churchmen. Interestingly, Goya requested in his will to be buried wearing a Franciscan habit. As he struggled against the tide of conflict and worsening illness, he might well have hoped to be comforted by the friars who were his friends.

By the end of his life, Goya had witnessed more than enough suffering to spark disillusionment with both Spain and its Church. He had, by now, settled in Bordeaux in self-imposed exile. But the prints in which he had attacked superstition and ecclesiastical hypocrisy did not signal that he had turned his back on religion, after all. Rather, he had focused his mind on how far the times had shaped the need for reform and Enlightenment through means other than Inquisition.

As far as Goya was concerned, there was no contradiction in supporting progress while nurturing the tenets of his faith. If he failed in one respect, it was in convincing posterity that he never lost his belief in the potential of the Catholic Church.

Daisy Dunn is a writer, author and classicist. Goya: The Portraits is at the National Gallery in London until January 10

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (23/10/15)

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