Goya Frescoes

Image of cupula frescoes by Francisco de Goya depicting St Antony

Contributor: Clare Brant

Location: La Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, Madrid

Description: In 1798, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) was commissioned to decorate a newly-rebuilt Neoclassical chapel devoted to St Antony of Padua (1195-1231) in a fashionable district of Madrid. Its frescoes, painted when Goya was 52 and working for the court, are a remarkable survival, and a masterpiece of religious art by Romanticism’s most versatile and original painter. Goya’s subject is a profound belief that the truth can be spoken, even if you have to revive a father’s corpse.

It isn’t known who determined the frescoes’ subject, but Goya seems to have had complete freedom of treatment. Around the chapel walls and vaulted arches assemble neoclassical angels, attractive young women in simple drapery and intriguing poses, who compel your glance away from cherubs in pendentives and lead your view upward. Above the arches, startlingly reversing the usual elevation of the divine and the lower place of mortals, is the main scene, covering the cupola. It shows St Antony who has returned to Lisbon because his father is accused of murder. The saint asks the murdered man whether the accused is guilty. The corpse returns to life and declares St Antony’s father innocent. A crowd witnesses the miracle in a circle marked off from us by a trompe l’oeil railing, softened by a ceremonial drape and then further by stage curtains held up by the angels below the cupola. The crowd are contemporary figures who might be seen in the locality along the nearby River Manzanares, or at the saint’s feast day. Such secularization could be seen as Enlightenment; what’s arguably Romantic is the freedom of conception, echoed in the loose, fast brushstrokes, and intensity of inspiration. Fresco requires swift application of paint; here Goya painted with speed and exceptional boldness. Equally Romantic is the way that traditional Christian themes of father and son, filial piety, sacrifice and resurrection are changed into a compelling moment of truth-telling, and how social distinctions are dissolved not just by the contingency of figures of different classes, but by the common humanity they create.

The Ermita opened as a royal chapel in 1799, the same year that Goya published an album of eighty aquatint etchings known as Los Caprichos. They depicted what he described in the Advertisement as ‘the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.’ His visions are partly explained by the famous inscription in aquatint 43, ‘El sueño de la razón produce monstruos’, ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’, indicative of the print’s sleeping man with cats, owls and bats rising menacingly behind. Goya was also working on portraits of royalty and nobility, where his disinclination to flatter can be seen as a form of sympathy with liberal opposition to reactionary institutions. In the Ermita frescoes, these grim views on humanity and the world are transmogrified into an insistence on the spectrum of human nature.

Characters around the circle include a toothless beggar; majas; a Celestina or procuress; a cloaked figure in brown and ochre said to be Goya himself. Narrative is broken into twos and threes, with body position indicating degrees of interest or indifference. Two grubby small boys climb the railing to get a better view; a trio of young women divide into one transformed by devotion, two sizing up men in the crowd. The group nearest St Antony – corpse, the muscled assistant who supports him and an imploring young woman – provide a narrative nucleus, but other stories spin off with competing energy. The viewer has to break from the principals’ line of gaze at the saint to encompass the circle of figures, a move that enacts the whole question of spectacle: who does it revolve around, and how do you look at it?

Yet for all its startling composition, arresting execution and beguiling detail, it is Goya’s subject which compels most: truth. The cupola fresco stages not pious hope of resurrection, nor exceptionality of miracle, but a profound belief in truth: the truth can be spoken, even if you have to revive a corpse. Though there is an old man near the life-in-death victim, defence of a father is not the point; what matters is that sons can put wrongs right, through action and question. Some commentators interpret a guilty-looking figure turning away as the murderer fearing he will be exposed. But the energy rests on righting injustice, rather than seeing justice done. The mixed reactions of those witnessing truth being spoken – scepticism, uncertainty, trust, inattention, insouciance – make it all the more important to heed. We are too careless with truth, Goya seems to say: a most Romantic sentiment. Goya’s San Antonio cupola fresco puts truth bang in the middle ground of human experience to suggest the emergency of finding it.

A statue honouring Goya, by José Llaneces, was installed in 1901 between the Ermita and the river, and the Ermita itself was made a national monument in 1905. The elegant chapel subsequently came to hold Goya’s tomb. He died in Bordeaux in exile, but his remains were interred at La Ermita in 1919 – minus his head, thought to have fallen into the hands of phrenologists — so Goya in stone, seated with a palette and brush, came to contemplate his own resting place. By 1928, the press of Goya-seeking visitors interfered with its religious business, a difficulty imaginatively solved by building an architectural replica of the chapel nearby. Restored in 2005 at a cost of 1.5 million euros, the frescoes are now listed in most guides to Madrid as a top attraction; in 2018, the Ermita had more than 10,000 visitors.

Date: 1799

Creator: Francisco Goya

Subject: Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida

Media rights: Madrid City Council

Object type: chapel and frescoes

Format: paint on plaster


Capelo, María José Rivas. A Guide to the Church of San Antonio de la Florida. Madrid City Council, 2014.

Hughes, Robert. Goya. Vintage, 2003.

Updike, John.  ‘An Obstinate Survivor’, The New Yorker. November 3, 2003 issue.