Bridging the Inquisition and the Enlightenment

Francisco Goya (1746-1828)

Francisco Goya was “the last of the great eighteenth-century painters, he was also the father of nineteenth-century art and the precursor of modern art.”[i]

“He has been called the last of the Old Masters and the first of the new; his people, whether aristocrats or plebeians, peasants, beggars, or beauties, are indisputably inhabitants of a world that we recognize—individuals unknown to us, but once seen never forgotten. It seems contradictory that this vision that speaks to us so directly should have been the product of a society that butchered humans and animals alike, a society based on hypocrisy and fear—the Spain of the Inquisition.”[ii]

Despite such an unpromising environment for an artist, Goya was able to mature into a painter who expressed the ideas of the Enlightenment and was supported by many of the people who were central to this period of transition for Europe and the Western world. Spain was still a feudal society among the most backward and oppressive to its people and was aptly called “Black Spain.”

No Spanish institution of this time was more repressive than the Church and Goya captures “the power and the terror embodied by the religious courts of the Inquisition”[iii]  in his painting entitled Inquisition Tribunal (1815). Ironically, he made a good deal of money depicting “the unacceptable face of religion. Subjects such as the courts of the Inquisition or the activities of witches were popular with his intellectual friends and patrons, who saw such themes as metaphors for the fear-ridden state of their country.”[iv]

Goya himself was brought before the Inquisition for the “unashamed eroticism” of The Naked and Clothed Majas (1800). The Inquisition also intervened to stop the sale of his book containing 82 etched plates entitled Los Caprichos (1797-99) representing the follies and blunders common in every civil society as well as … vulgar prejudices and lies authorized by custom, ignorance or interest.  It is at once specific and general, and the biting edge of his satire cuts many ways—even some of the institutions he attacked in the etchings praised the series as an edifying force.”[v]  In these etchings and his work as a whole, Goya fulfills the role of the archetypal prophet in calling the attention of the society to reality itself—a reality that is being denied by a people enthralled by their own dark and self-destructive motivations.

It is interesting to note that the painter of “Black Spain” also toward the end of his life created a series of smaller paintings entitled the “Black Paintings.” During this same time his series of etchings entitled Los Disparates (1815-23) were produced. His whole life was spent courageously confronting the absurdity of unconscious human behavior and the accompanying denial of the consequences of that behavior. He was a fearless iconoclast and continually challenged both the conservative and liberal forces that had much of Europe in turmoil.

Goya understood that something was woefully wrong with the direction that European civilization was taking and sounded an alarm with his powerful art. “The subjects are nightmarish and grotesque—dark scenes from mythology, witches’ Sabbaths, madness, and violence [with] his later work being an intensification of his lifelong obsession with the dark and irrational side of human life.”[vi]

In the 200 years since Goya depicted the “dark and irrational” side of human life, only the details have changed, the madness of an unconscious and self-destructive humanity continues unchecked awaiting the awareness (enlightenment) and compassion that is our only hope.

Bridging the Inquisition and the Enlightenment

[i]     Flame Tree Publishing, World Art: The Essential Illustrated History. London. 2006, page 30.

[ii]     The Great Masters. London: Quantum Publishing. 2003, page 192.

[iii]    Ibid., page 193.

[iv]    Ibid., page 195.

[v]     Ibid., page 198.

[vi]    Ibid., page 232.


Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.