Responding to the suppression of an historic event barely recalled today--5000 Madrid civilians executed for revolting against the invading Napoleonic French army--Goya painted a monumental canvas. The painter depicts fear and defiance in the enlarged white eyes of the patriots still alive, some shielding their eyes and faces with their hands. Profuse blood seeps from the dead lying in groups all over the ground as the firing squad of well-equipped professional soldiers massed together (only their backsvisible to the viewer), shoot at alarmingly close range unarmed, shabbily dressed peasants.

Strong light from a single lantern illuminates the face and body of one white shirted condemned man on his knees, eyes wide-open, leaning forward, arms outstretched, Christ-like, at the moment he is being shot. The powerless, innocent and grieving victims, next to be sacrificed, are hemmed in by a barren hill behind which looms the outline of barely visible city buildings, including a church.


Given the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, not only the mass death of innocent victims, but questions of photo-journalism warrant renewed attention. Gruesome yet beautiful, narrative’s purpose--in words or pictures--is to capture "truth," moments of panic, confusion and pain. Poet Theodore Roethke (1964) tells us how "In a dark time, the eyes begin to see . . . "(see annotation of In a Dark Time). If nothing else, art is an act of witness, challenging our souls and hearts as it does our memories.

An ironic detail: The citizens rounded up for brutal execution May 3, 1808, regardless of innocence or guilt, were those who happened to be in possession of pen knives or scissors. Matte knives or "box cutters" were the terrorists’ effective weapons of choice on Sept 11. The paradoxical way artists continually "bring light into . . . terrible darknesses" are consoling as they excite us to activism. To quote the past president of the Society for Arts in Healthcare, "The terrorists used very simple things like matte knives to cause great destruction. We too can use very simple things like tape, pencils, crayons, a song, movement, and yes, even matte knives to help the healing process." (Naj Wikoff, 2001).

Perhaps 20th century’s most famous painting about the impersonal horrors and barbarity of war is another Spaniard’s expression of patriotic rage, Picasso’s Guernica (see this database).


Painted 1814

Primary Source

Museo delo Prado, Madrid