The Executions by Francisco de Goya: The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid

The Executions by Goya, also known as The Executions on Principe Pio Hill or just The Third of May, is one of the masterpieces painted by the genius born in Fuendetodos (Zaragoza, Aragón), Francisco de Goya y Lucientes.

It was painted in 1814, six years after the events occured. It is paired with The charge of the Mamelukes, also known as The Second of May

Goya tried to capture the horrors of the Peninsular War in this canvas of huge dimensions (2.68 x 3.47 metres).

The canvas is located in the room 064 of the Prado Museum, where it arrived before 1834 from the Royal Collection.

The executions by Francisco de Goya
Francisco de Goya. The Executions of May 3, 1808

After the Peninsular War, Ferdinand VII came back to Spain in 1814. In order to commemorate the uprising against the French despot, the Spanish regents, the Cortes and the City Council of Madrid though up a series of events.

In this environment, Goya offered to paint two canvas that show the heroism and the sacrifice made by Spaniards and, more precisely, the people of Madrid: The Executions on Principe Pio Hill and The charge of the Mamelukes.

The true protagonists

Breaking with the perfect academic symmetry, Goya does not place the main character on the centre of the composition, but slightly on the left. This character is represented with the arms arranged in a cross shape, a gesture that remind us to the Crucified Christ. This idea is also supported with the mark he has on his right hand.

Furthermore, he is on his knees with a white shirt. He is the anti-hero. An anonymous man, innocent, whose dead will be a symbol of the bravery Spanish people in the presence of the French barbarism.

Next to him, there is another man on his knees. However, this time it seems he is praying or begging. It might be a religious man, perhaps a Franciscan. Thus, Goya reports again the fierce reprisal carried out by French troops who did not distinguish between rebels and innocents. On the right side, there is a group of men whose faces and gestures become apparent of the horror. If you pay attention, you will notice that one of them has an expression of absolute terror. The white in his eyes is shining, he is frightened. It even seems he is biting his nails.

Anyways, Goya is not interested in the execution itself. Otherwise, he would have represented the men as prisoners, with their hands tied and flanked by soldiers. Goya wanted to praise the population of Madrid against the despot.

The executions by Francisco de Goya
Detail of the prisioners.
The executions by Francisco de Goya
Detail of the faces.

Principe Pío, a dramatic scenery

Thanks to the chronicle of that time, we know that the executions took place on Principe Pio Hill. However, Goya did not settle the scenario. He places it on the outskirts, trying to remark the embarrassment of the barbarity committed.

The architectonic references he draws are not identical as those of Madrid. They are just  “decorations” that show us the remoteness of the city centre.

Several authors have identified the tower with the one of church of the convent of San Bernardino. Others, by contrast, suggest that it is the church of Santa Cruz, the highest in the city.

Executions took place in the early hours of the morning of the 3rd May, during a dark and rainy night. It seems that Goya tried to recreate that atmosphere. That is why he paints a black sky that occupies a great area of the canvas. This resource increases the dramatism.

On the contrary, the only light bulb on the painting is the lantern. Nevertheless, the light does not come from the lantern, but from our anti-hero’s white shirt. Moreover, the illumination behind the heads of those sentenced to death, as an halo, boosts it.

The executions by Francisco de Goya
Fund details.
The executions by Francisco de Goya
Detail of the lantern.

French soldiers

As opposed to the victims, Goya represents anonymous soldiers without faces. Their solid block formation makes them look like automated killing machines.

The only thing that allow us to recognise them as French soldiers is the type of helmet they wear: a morion. In addition, their kit bag show they belong to the infantry.

On the other hand, their uniforms have different tonalities since they were made up with woolen without dying.

The executions by Francisco de Goya
Detail of the French soldiers.

As a fun fact, notice that Goya show us two novelties introduced by French army during the Peninsular war. The type of morions as well as the sabre with square hilt.

The executions by Francisco de Goya
Detail of the sabres.
The executions by Francisco de Goya
Detail of the corpses.

The Executions and the idea of time

Goya represents the notion of time in this painting. Firstly, there are the corpses of those already murderedBehind them, the prisoners that are going to be shot in that precise moment. At the back, the men that will be. Goya plays with the idea of past, present and future.

About the author