Goya's Unavoidable Void

The painting of an offering being made to an idol is the work of a young artist already on his way to modernity.

Jonathan Hirschfeld
“The Sacrifice to Pan,” by Francisco de Goya (1771).
“The Sacrifice to Pan,” by Francisco de Goya (1771).
Jonathan Hirschfeld

Francisco Goya was 25 when he painted this small canvas (33 x 25 centimeters, ), in 1771. In writing about the artist, something like the following story is often told: Goya (1746-1828) started out as a standard Rococo painter, notably in the tapestry cartoons he did from the end of the 1770s. Concurrent with his deafness and madness, he becomes a more Romantic, more political, more acid artist who gradually turns his gaze from the exterior world inward to the world of nightmare and insanity, the night of the mind, and thus his life crosses the 18th century into the 19th and sows the seeds of 20th-century modernity.

This small canvas, I would argue, shows something of the modern Goya already at the start of his path. For what we have here is not less than ridiculous: the contrast of the girl’s good, innocent face (a countenance that prompted some scholars to maintain that the painting is not by Goya, because of his propensity to depict women with stupid faces) with her grateful seriousness as she offers a sacrifice to the battered, wrecked and moldy stone sculpture of a lecherous, drunk and naked god. This contrast is simply a caricature of religious belief as such.

Goya is not asking us to ask ourselves how it is possible that the billions who believe in something have never asked themselves: “How did it happen that precisely I was born into the right religion, the right stream? How is it that there is a God with a will, and that will is known by certain people, and I was born into this specific group of people, and all the others are wrong?”

He is not leaping ahead to 2014 and is not asking us to look at the achievements of science and at the finest explanations of evolution. He is not asking how it is possible for an ultra-Orthodox Jew in Mea She’arim to believe wholeheartedly in God and conceal from himself the achievements of science and the fact that the heavens are empty of God and filled with planes and satellites.

No, because the painting offers us a quiet moment of meditation. One quiet moment of communing with our inner truth in order to see there not only the awareness of our death — the reverse shadow, the shadow of the light that it casts on our life, which seems to be refracted in the prism of the consciousness of death and takes from it its colors. One razor-sharp moment of inward gaze reveals to us how we created our world, and in that moment we see lucidly, through the false consciousness, the truth of our solitariness, the truth of our nullity, the gigantic absence of God.

This certainty of our nullity cries out from every cell of our being, and therefore we choose to pretend that we believe the unreasonable lie, the infantile, untenable child’s tale called God or religion. This is the comic, bitter sentiment in Goya’s painting “The Sacrifice to Pan.”



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