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The Arts

The Church Where Francisco Goya Rewrote Some Hallowed Conventions of Religious Iconography

Located in a Madrid suburb, Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida features some brilliant frescoes which are truly avant-garde in spirit even as they foreground a religious theme.

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Today, March 30, is Francisco Goya’s birth anniversary.

Fabio was incredulous. How come someone from far-away India was visiting a Spanish church most Spaniards did not care much about? Maybe didn’t even know much about?

After all, the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida features only rarely on the tourist circuit. And, properly speaking, it doesn’t even stand within Madrid’s city limits. But, even if it did, would the denizens of Madrid flock to it? With a contempt the proud suburbanite reserves for the graceless metropolis, Fabio seemed to sneer at the typical Madrilenian: she likely wouldn’t even have heard of this little gem, Fabio believed. But of course, could she care less?

I had met Fabio on the waterfront. After a tour of the Ermita, I wanted to give my weary legs a rest, and drifted through the surrounding parkland till I reached the stately granite likeness of the man whose work on the Ermita’s walls and dome I had set out that early winter morning to explore: Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes – Francisco Goya, for short.

As I sat at the great man’s feet, resting, I realised, to my delight, that the park stood on the bank of a river – the Manzanares. I eagerly went forward to stand by the water, when the elderly, genial Fabio – presumably out on his mid-morning constitutional –  accosted me. We got talking, our conversation  aided by the fact that Fabio’s English was somewhat better than my Spanish. Soon, he was commending my Spanish language skills, however, and my zest for travelling alone to unfamiliar places that even locals gave a wide berth to.

That’s when he launched on his broadside against Madrid’s ‘indelicate’ inhabitants. I ventured to demur, but he simply pooh-poohed my reservations.

Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida. Photo: Author provided.

Named after the church’s patron saint, the 13th century Franciscan friar Saint Anthony (San Antonio in Spanish) of Padua, the Ermita was commissioned by King Carlos IV in late 18th century, and built for him between 1792 and 1798 by the Italian architect Filippo Fontana.

An unpretentious, but elegant, neo-classical structure in chrome yellow and pale brown and capped by a blue cupola, the Ermita was not conceived as a regular parish church but  was meant primarily to serve the city’s gatekeepers, customs officials, riverbank washerwomen and other such humble communities living at the capital city’s margins.

But if I had made this little church my first port of call on my first full day in Madrid, it was not because Filippo Fontana was a familiar name, or that I was researching Carlos IV’s architectural tastes. What had brought me here was the fact that this not-very-widely-known temple housed some of Goya’s most celebrated frescoes.

Looking doubly formidable as he sat in his black granite outfit on a raised platform, Goya watched over the Ermita and its early-winter surroundings with his never-failing eyes. Photo: Author provided

It was also where Goya has been laid to rest since 1919, after his remains had been disinterred from his grave in Bordeaux, France, where he had died in 1828. Since Francisco Goya and his work were one of the main themes around which I had built my Madrid itinerary this time, I thought it appropriate to pay my respects to the artist as early in my trip as possible.

Inside the Ermita, Felipe Fontana created a chapel in the shape of a Greek cross, with short arms and a semicircular apse from the top of which originates a central space dominated by a big dome and illuminated by a lantern. The chapel is confined to areas attached to the exterior, forming a rectangle. “Standing out from this”, Madrid’s official tourism website points out to the visitor, “are the supports, which showcase the main facade, built according to the Baroque canon”.

Since 1928, when an exact replica of the Ermita was built on an adjacent  plot of land and thrown open to worshippers, Fontana’s chapel has been a museum and National Monument – no longer a place of worship. This, the museum’s affable curator informed me as she showed me around, was done with an eye on preserving Goya’s wonderful frescoes in good shape. But footfall in the museum, even in high season, was sparse, she confided. Indeed, I seemed to be the only visitor that morning. In the museum’s well-kept, modern auditorium, a short film tracing the history of the Ermita and the process of the creation of the frescoes was playing to an empty hall. The curator’s  words found an echo in Fabio’s tirade against the big city later. 

At a little distance from the altar and at the foot of the presbytery, stand two tombstones, side by side. The one on your left as you face the altar is in granite, and the Latin inscription on it simply tells you that the remains of Francisco Goya, who was born in Fuendetodos on 30 March, 1746 and died in Bordeaux on 16 April, 1828, lie buried here.

Photo: Author provided

The second tombstone, in stone, makes one curious, because it mentions ‘Martin Miguel de Goicoechea’, an unfamiliar name. The museum guidebook explains that this, in fact, was Goya’s friend, who was his son’s father-in-law, who had been buried by his side in Bordeaux. Both were brought to Madrid together and laid to rest alongside each other ‘to avoid errors of identification’. One morbid bit of information that you also pick up is that, when Goya’s body was disinterred from the Bordeaux grave, his head was found missing, presumably stolen “for phrenological studies”!

One imagines that if the artist himself had had any premonition of this grisly eventuality, he would have cheerfully fashioned a dark self-portrait without the head.

As construction of the Ermita came to a close in 1798, King Carlos invited Goya to decorate the chapel and the cupola with murals. Goya’s brief was to pictorialise a popular legend about Saint Anthony which told how a murder victim in Padua was briefly resurrected from death by Anthony. The miracle revolved around Anthony’s determination to establish the innocence of his own father who had been unjustly accused of the murder. The corpse momentarily returns to life and declares St Anthony’s father innocent. While by itself the theme left little room for manoeuvring, Goya’s genius created a treatment for it that places the narrative at multiple removes from conventional religious iconography.

Photo: Author provided

Ermita San Antonio has often been described as Goya’s Sistine Chapel, and, in the sheer mastery of their execution as also in the deftness and sureness of the brushstrokes that created them, these frescoes are quite as remarkable as Michelangelo’s masterwork. But there is this crucial difference: for all his inventiveness and the capaciousness of his imaginations, Michelangelo’s focus in the Sistine Chapel was on representation, while Goya was reinterpreting the narrative that he had been tasked to portray. Goya was the Enlightenment’s offspring, but he was also an early Romantic – and his principal weapons were scepticism and empathy, qualities that suffuse his treatment of this purely religious motif in equal measure.

Also read: Francisco Goya and the Unremitting Violence of the Human Condition

Apart from their central theme, there is very little in the Ermita frescoes that can place them in the category of religious art. Goya paints a canvas of ordinary life, indeed of street life in late 18th century Madrid (although Anthony’s story legitimately belongs to 13th century Lisbon). Children playing, a maja in garish clothes, dogs sniffing around for food, a procuress looking for clients, a toothless beggar, stone workers busy at their trade – all this, and such-like snippets of everyday life in the city that Goya loved so dearly, make up the world of these frescoes. The simple joys and uncomplicated anxieties of simple lives are quite palpable here.

The crowd is out on the street to watch Anthony perform his miracle even as it is busy pursuing its own thousand callings, pastimes and whims. It’s an ordinary day, and ordinary people are living their quotidian, but by no means dull, lives. Goya sets off this colourful throng against dull greys, muted greens and bright blues, bleaching to pure white at the summit of the cupola. 

Photo: Author provided

Goya achieves the dramatic effect of his fresco by individualising each member of the crowd, investing them with vivid but varied emotions, so that each of them looks perfectly convincing in how they are reacting to the miracle. From a woman’s sentimental ecstasy to doubt, anguish and incredulity showing on the faces of the men huddling around Anthony – each emotion is masterfully captured here. Elsewhere in the murals, a young man, exalted at the sight of the resurrection, has leapt on to a bench, his dazzled face raised towards heaven. At the same time, two grubby little boys climb the railing to get a better view of the spectacle, while a trio of young women divide into one transformed by ardent devotion, and two sizing up men in the crowd quite unabashedly.

Such secularisation of the narrative must have looked problematic to Goya’s contemporaries. Indeed, many nobles and aristocrats, who happened to watch Goya as he worked on the frescoes, thought quite poorly of Goya’s interpretation of the religious theme, and were sceptical of the king approving of the representation. To everyone’s surprise – maybe even Goya’s – Carlos IV seemed to like the work, and endorsed it with enthusiasm. Maybe the fact that the church would cater only to commoners and not to Madrid’s elite weighed with the king in his decision. Posterity must feel grateful to Carlos IV all the same.

The very nearly subversive nature of Goya’s vision is driven home to us with startling clarity when we place his frescoes alongside a more conventional representation of the same story. Thus we have Andrea Sacchi’s painting based on the Anthony legend, done in 1635 for a church in Rome. Now, while it may be argued – with justification – that Sacchi’s painting predates the Goya frescoes by a century and a half, we need nevertheless to bear in mind that Sacchi was an exact contemporary of the great mathematician-philosopher Rene Descartes and a younger contemporary of the incomparable Galileo Galilee, a fellow Italian. Besides, Sacchi was working on his Saint Anthony canvas nearly two hundred years after the European High Renaissance had taken Italy by storm.                              

Andrea Sacchi: Saint Anthony reviving a Dead Man. Photo: Author provided

A closer look at the Sacchi painting also underscores Goya’s strikingly original vision. The two cherubs occupying the top of Sacchi’s canvas are a pretty standard component of the architecture of conventional religious art. Convention would thus have decreed that the Goya frescoes filled the Ermita’s dome with the usual heavenly scene of cloud-borne angels and chubby cherubs, who would look down while the spectacle of Saint Anthony’s miracle played out on the walls below the cupola.

Goya, however, turned this consecrated formula upside down. In his representation, the very human narrative involving ordinary women and men unfolds on and around the cupola, while angels and cherubs, who throng the panels and arches below the cupola, gaze up at the dome. Indeed, the architecture of the Ermita frescoes is such that it is the angels who are drawing back the drapes, as though they were theatre assistants, to reveal to the visitors the scenes of the hoi polloi doing their own thing!  That Goya’s version of the Anthony miracle passed muster when it did is in itself a minor miracle.

Goya was no longer young – he was 52 – and was in indifferent health when he was invited to do the Ermita frescoes. Several years earlier, a mysterious illness had pushed him to death’s door, and though he had come round, he was never the same man again. And yet, Goya took to his new assignment as a duck takes to water, driving out every morning to the distant church in a hired carriage, and working on the frescoes like a maniac, invariably till sundown. In the event, he completed the paintings in under five months, proving beyond doubt that it was a job after his own heart. What was it about this commission that excited him so greatly?

It was, we suspect, the opportunity to document his belief in and love of the common man, the ordinary, unremarkable, insignificant being whom yet the artist counterposed to the crass cynicism, the mounting irrationality and the egregious mendacity of upper-class Spanish society. Being a court painter, Goya could not, of course, make his predilections and his natural affinities public except at his own peril. So also he had to make sure that he kept his enigmatic religious convictions largely to himself. The Ermita frescoes, however, provided him with a respectable, royally-sanctioned platform to air his views without the need to equivocate. Goya grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Anjan Basu writes on a range of subjects. He can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.