An Inquisition Trial by Goya

Surely the best Inquisition trial scene ever painted.

Inquisition Tribunal (46 X 73cm), in the Academia de San Fernando, Madrid (public domain photo)

Goya  must have actually seen this, though the Inquisition was gone temporarily when he painted the picture. King José, Napoleon’s brother, did away with it.  (It would come right back with the Bourbon king soon. The Inquisition was a political instrument.)

The trial takes place in a dark, church-like hall, where the heat and breath of the crowds rises in a kind of fog. Those judgments were public and drew big crowds. Notice the cleric on the highest platform reading aloud the charges against the accused from his big book.  You can almost hear his monotonous clerk’s voice.

The man on trial, like the other criminals, is wearing a sambenito, the  clown-like clothing of the condemned, which included that dunce cap. He is broken, he has surely already been tortured, the blood drips from his head somewhere. The other condemned are scared, horrified at what is coming.  No doubt more torture or the death penalty.

The calm, superior,  relaxed interrogator, not a clergyman, is asking tricky questions that the accused had better answer in a way that pleases those clerical judges conferring at the foot of the platform. With their keen, trained minds they confer on some point of law or theology. How could Goya get those faces so right? He couldn’t keep from putting an overweight friar among the judges and letting his sympathies (or antipathies) show.

You might think of Goya as the first great reporter—a kind of picture journalist, though he didn’t paint for any newspaper and he didn’t post his pictures in public. And unlike a journalist with his camera, he reinvented the scenes from memory. Everything in his picture is his—every single line and fleck of color was his own invention.  It was all comment, one hundred percent.


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18 Responses to An Inquisition Trial by Goya

  1. Ken Januski says:

    I hope I’m not delivering some melons here Swallows, but this painting got me thinking. Though some artists I think are happy to paint more or less what they see, and make great art of it I have to say, others artists may be more driven by emotion, perhaps a love of beauty, or perhaps something else. With Goya and this painting I wonder if the emotion is not moral outrage.

    My guess is that this was a huge factor in allowing him to invent every single bit of the painting as you say. I imagine that emotional fire was like a fiercely focused weapon that entered every brushstroke. There aren’t many painters of sustained moral outrage but Goya was certainly one. I’m sure this is news to no one. But I’d really never thought much about moral outrage as an emotion that can add to and magnify artistic focus.

    You are developing a fascinating series on Spanish painters (assuming of course that we can call El Greco Spanish).

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: It used to be said of Spaniards that they were always irritated but I haven’t noticed that irritation in a long time. Even young men, in a loud and apparently angry voice, would give you long discourses on all the wrongs of the world and what should be done, and especially, what should not have been done. They would do this often in a very entertaining way.

      Goya seems outraged here but he didn’t need anger to grab a brush. He painted pictures the way other people write an e-mail message or make a blog entry. Sometimes he paints what he likes or what he thinks is fascinating, without criticizing it. In his early paintings such as the tapestry cartoons, he certainly meant to show a pleasant world of pretty majas and picnics and hunting fun. Later, when he became trapped in the political and social battles of the time and he saw up close how the world is run, he took sides. His deafness must have closed his mouth too, just when he had so much to say. I’m going to do another post on his caricature scenes or pictorial editorials or whatever you might call them.

      • Ken Januski says:

        Thanks Swallows. As I read your posts I rely on my memory of art history and museum going of many years ago and my memory is not always reliable. So when I think of Goya, especially when I see this painting, I think also of his etchings of war. But there is much more that I don’t recall or never knew. Tnanks for pointing that out. It will be interesting to read more about Goya.

        As always your posts make me want to drop everything and go see more of an artist’s work and read more about them. But I just don’t have time for that. Though I must confess your blog has persuaded me to struggle through an old Howard Hibberd(?) book on Michelangelo and look briefly at books on Frank Stella, the Renaissance, Constable and probably some others.

        And I still need to find a quote on a book I just read on the watercolors of John Singer Sargent (a revelation to me by the way). The quote mentions Sargents varied background, an American, born in Florence, with other artistic and geographical influences, and then something about being a painter of Spain, or something similar. One of these days I’ll find it and send it along.

        • 100swallows says:

          Goya was big inside and full of many moods and contradictions. He was certainly indignant at times but I’d bet anything he wasn’t a permanent grouch.
          Don’t drop everything. Paint some more of your fine abstract paintings.
          I saw some of Sargent’s watercolors years ago and have never forgotten them. One was of a fountain in Rome all sparkling with sunlight. Send the quote when you find it. Do you know the watercolors of Mariano Fortuny? He lived at the same time, made brilliant studies of people and landscapes in Granada and North Africa. You surely know Turner’s watercolors.

          • Ken Januski says:

            Hi Swallows,

            I’m unfamiliar with Fortuny. I’ll have to look him up. As for Turner, you know it’s odd. I’ve never been all that fond of him, even the watercolors. I like English watercolorists and I should like Turner I know. I’m afraid he’s one more artist I need to reexamine. Off the top of my head, which isn’t all that trustworthy a location, I’d guess its his lack of tonal variation that has made him less appealing to me. But rather than trust this intuitive judgment on him I think I’ll need to either pull out a book or pay a visit to the museum………

  2. wrjones says:

    Interesting reading as usual. If moral outrage is your muse you would never run out of inspiration.

    • 100swallows says:

      Bill: She was particularly exuberant and seductive in Goya’s time but she still flirts with artists.

      • Ken Januski says:

        It would be easy for her to be my muse, since I’m often morally outraged, though probably a lot less so now than when I was younger. But I think she is a very dangerous mistress, and one that few artists can control. That inability to control such a strong emotion is what got me thinking about Goya. He doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed by it. But then maybe, as Swallows indicates, he was mainly a reporter.

        I hope this won’t be out of place here, like someone touting his or her own book on TV, but I do have a photo of one painting I did that contains moral outrage. It is at the bottom of the page and is called ‘Idyll’, a somewhat ironic title, in which the bulk of the painting is supposed to represent a beautiful, idyllic scene, though of abstract shapes. At this time there had been a terrorist airplane hijacking that ended up with many people dying. That is represented in the upper left. It includes a snake chasing its tail, for me an apt metaphor for the rationality of terrorism. It’s the only painting I ever did on this theme and as I said I hope it won’t seem out of place to mention it here.

        • 100swallows says:

          Ken: I can’t remember seeing an abstract picture of moral outrage before and your Idyll was fun and instructive to look at. Slobodkin in his sculpture book recommended drawing happy shapes and troubled shapes and tragic shapes, and so on, and the idea always fascinated me. Your abstract shapes are more definite than Kandinski’s color smears and make your paintings almost “figurative”. The colors are really beautiful and original, something rare in our time. Of course I, having lived in Spain for years with Picasso’s Guernika as a neighbor, make a comparison with that when I look at your broken, nearly human shapes in the snake ring. I also thought of our terrorist Basque group ETA and its logotype, which contains a snake.

          I guess many are like you (and, say, Bob Dylan) who suffer more from moral indignation when they are young but Goya suffered more later. Maybe it had to do with his deafness or the hard things he witnessed in the last third of his life. But like a great novelist or poet he dramatized all of life, not only the outrageous. I see you put that in just a corner of your Idyll, like the Tree with its Snake in a glade of Eden.

          • Ken Januski says:

            Hi Swallows,

            My guess with moral indignation is not that people suffer it less when they are older but that they realize: one, it makes others, even your friends, very uncomfortable; and two, you yourself may realize that it’s not healthy to be angry all the time, and you start to notice more the good and beautiful side of life. At least I think that’s true of myself.

            Of course there may be some people who are so overwhelmed by their indignation that they really have no choice in the matter. They can’t switch to a love of beauty. I think the world is always better for having such artists but my guess is that the artists live difficult lives themselves. But that’s just a guess. I’d forgotten about Goya’s deafness and who knows how powerfully that might have affected him.

            One more subject for the reading list…………

  3. erikatakacs says:

    Moral outrage sounds fitting, Ken, but isn’t there also something grotesque about the the trial itself? It looks like a scene from a play, the accused and the accusers all being actors, but leaving the spectator undecided whether this is a comedy or a tragedy. Those ridiculous hats and the wide poses and gestures make many of the characters into caricatures.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: There is always something ambiguous about Goya’s pictures. I’d propose that he wasn’t criticizing the Inquisition itself so much as mankind: man’s inhumanity to man. It’s the same with his war pictures. The soldiers who perpetrate the atrocities happen to be French but he isn’t condemning Frenchness. Soon I will post a picture of the inside of a madhouse and perhaps another of the Iroquois Indians torturing Jesuit missionaries. Does he mean to stir up anger at the Indians?
      Other vignettes of his are hard to interpret, though they are unforgettable. When Goya in old age paints village fiestas he makes them look like his black paintings. The people are ugly and foolish and the atmosphere is sinister. He became pessimistic, though never a real misanthrope. His last painting was of a pretty girl in bright colors.

      It’s true the characters here are like actors, but I think you can be pretty sure the play is a tragedy. Goya didn’t invent the sambenitos and the caps. They were the uniform of shame. Originally they must have been meant to make the accused look silly—a form of mockery. But there would have been no clean fun at a trial like this or reflections on what a pleasant contradiction the world is.

  4. Ken Januski says:


    I held off replying knowing that Swallows would surely give you a far better and more informed explanation of the hats and poses than I could. Like Swallows I don’t think there’s any doubt that he meant to portray a tragedy.

  5. Rich says:

    A “first great reporter; kind of a picture journalist” as you say, Swallows:
    Did someone order this “illustration” and pay for it? Or has this sinister painting been framed and hung somewhere? At least I wouldn’t like to have it on my living room wall.

    However…as wrjones says: interesting reading as usual.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: I don’t think its history is known. It’s hard to believe it was commissioned by anyone. In the last century a man bequeathed this and four other pictures of “social themes” to the Academia of Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, where they are now. None of the five figured in the 1812 catalog of Goya’s work (according to my Obra píctorica completa de Goya, Noguer-Rizzoli). It may be sinister but I keep going back to look at it—such a tour de force, original in so many ways. As Erika says, it is like a play but all the acts are compressed into one scene where everything is happening, all the actors are doing their thing. You wonder: did Goya spend time figuring out how to show all that or did the construction of the picture come naturally? So much of what he did looks effortless, as though just tossed off, like swearing or wisecracking or chuckling.

  6. erikatakacs says:

    I knew that those hats were invented for mockery. It’s not as much the hats, but the accused’s posture, the exaggerated positioning of the legs that makes the scene go beyond reporting or moral outrage for me. Nobody really sees that? In Hungarian we call it tragi-comedy what I see here. I don’t know what he meant, but Swallows you admit yourself he liked ambiguity. Inquisition trial in Goya’s age? Isn’t is tragi-comedy in itself?
    Isn’t he mocking the outdated institution itself?

    Whatever his reason, I sure enjoy the contrasting play of the legs and that’s what I find remarkable about this otherwise not one of his best paintings.

  7. Rich says:

    Yes, Swallows, the painting really has that effortlessness you’re talking about. Goya just put on the canvas what he had seen and witnessed. A sensitive and soulful artistic nature as he was, he obviously had to live in those times where such a horrible things like inquisition were possible and even made up a cruel public heyday. So he reported the scene, effortlessly, all those masks, “larvae” Larven as it’s still called in German.
    What’s your opinion on James Ensor? That’s another drawer of human masks and larvae….

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