Goya – San Antonio De La Florida

I THINK I felt a keener curiosity to visit the Church of San Antonio de la Florida than I have ever felt to visit any church before—excepting only the Baptistery and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna. I don’t mean to imply that the Italian Byzantine churches have anything in common with the late eighteenth-century chapel in Madrid beyond this, that the structure of each is merely a kind of framework for the decoration. One goes to see the mosaics in the one case and the frescoes of Francisco Goya in the other. And the cause of my curiosity was the recollection of the amazing accounts I had read of the tricks which the wilful genius has played in this little sanctuary. The comments of Mr William Rothenstein are highly suggestive. ” Imagine,” he says, ” a coquettish little church with a white and gold interior, more like a boudoir than a shrine, but furnished with altar, and seats, and confessionals. One’s nostrils expect an odour of frangipane rather than incense, and it must be admitted that Goya’s frescoes do not strike a discordant note in this indecorously holy place.” And Richard Muther, the German critic, describes the effect as ” an artistic can-can —Casanova transferred to colour.”

Goya received the commission to decorate the church in 1798 and, dashing at his task with that violent energy with which all his happiest work was achieved, completed the whole undertaking within four months. Every morning he drove in a hired chariot from his house on the other side of the Manzanares to the church and returned in the evening in the same manner, paying for the double journey the somewhat exorbitant fare of fifty-six reals. In the July of the following year the church was opened for public worship, or perhaps we should rather say for the public inspection of the latest achievement of Madrid’s most popular painter. The verdict was unanimously favourable. The Madrilelos are said to have gone wild with excitement over the novel and alluring decorations, and the master wrote to his friend Zapater telling him ” the King and Queen are mad on your friend Goya.” Charles IV. marked his approbation by raising Goya to the rank of Primer Pintor de Camara, with a yearly salary of fifty thousand reals and an additional allowance of five hundred crowns to defray the expenses of the upkeep of a coach—this last provision enabling the painter, no doubt, to effect a very considerable saving in cab fares !

It was therefore with a curious sense of expectancy that I set out to visit San Antonio one fine spring morning at an hour when Madrid was just waking from sleep. I chose the early morning because I supposed the light would be better then, because I knew the building would be open, for the church has other uses than those of a museum, and because I believe that the early morning is the proper time to see pictures and read verses and hear masses and to partake in all serene and wholesome activities of the spirit generally. The early morning smell, which is another incentive to early rising, was indeed lacking, for it never descends upon cities, but the odour of the coffee-roasters cheerily roasting in the gutters made satisfactory amends for its absence. The trams were running, of course, or perhaps I should say circulating, for ” running ” implies a degree of momentum to which they very rarely attain. It was surprising to find them up so early, for they retire even later than the Madrileflos ; but then they require less rest—in fact, I am not certain that they take any rest at all, beyond the long and frequent rests which they indulge in at the stopping-places along the route. Their bells were ringing as clamorously for a free course as in the more crowded hours of the day, not because the course was not already perfectly clear, but because the clamour has become a habit. I boarded one that was entering the Calle Mayor and, changing into another just beyond the Royal Palace, descended the steep incline past the Estación del Norte and proceeded for about a mile along the Paseo de la Florida.

Adjacent to the residence of the kings, this avenue in Goya’s time was one of the most fashionable promenades of the town, but the district has since suffered a reverse of fortune. The Paseo borders the Manzanares, Madrid’s makeshift for a river. But for a constant dredging of its sandy bottom I believe the ineffectual stream would be in danger of choking up altogether. It serves, however, as a great open-air laundry of the town. On its banks acres and acres of Madrid’s under-clothing are spread out to dry. Of the festive parties, picnicking, dancing and merry-making, as Goya has depicted them in his cartoons for the tapestries, I saw no trace—indeed, considering the earliness of the hour, I never expected to see any. But no one every thinks of picnicking on the banks of the Manzanares nowadays at any hour of the day.

At length the tram stopped at a little plain, stuccoed, classical structure, standing some way back from the road, surrounded by trees. It looked not unlike a rather pretentious lodge at a nobleman’s park gates, though not in such good repair. It had the air of having seen better days, in keeping with the quarter generally. On entering the building I received a similar impression of shabbiness. The white and gold had dulled to grey and drab, the plaster was chipped, the altars uncared for, the furniture restricted to a few rickety benches. And here, where a century ago the ladies of fashion used to gather to display the latest modes of the Directoire or the Empire, knelt half-a-dozen aged women, faithful to the perennial mode of the black shawl, praying with a fervency to which I dare say the little church in its better days was wholly unaccustomed. The entrance of a stranger at so early an hour momentarily distracted their attention. Observing me gazing fixedly up-wards, they too glanced uneasily at the frescoed dome overhead, doubtless supposing that I had discovered something amiss with the roof. Then, as if reassured by the vague vision of angelic forms that the decoration was as it should be, they resumed their pious exercises, oblivious as ever of the fact that above them was spread the master work of Goya’s ecclesiastical painting.

The miniature church consists only of a central dome, with spandrels, flanked by four arches. The purpose of the frescoes, therefore, was not, as in the cathedral at Zaragoza, to add the glow of colour to an imposing architectural effect ; it was rather the function of the church to serve as a framework for the frescoes. The building was entrusted to Goya, as it might have been a canvas, for him to fill in with a single design. And it is to be noted that Goya was for once allowed a free hand. Here was no querulous chapter to question the exiguity of celestial draperies, no pedantic brother-in-law Bayeu to impose academical restrictions. The sole consideration that can have affected the strict dictates of his artistic conscience may have been a desire to produce something that would be pleasing to the pretty ladies of the Court, who made this little church their favourite rendezvous.

The fresco of the dome illustrates an incident in the life of St Anthony : the miracle of the saint raising a murdered man to life in order that he might reveal the name of his assassin and so exculpate one who had been falsely charged with the crime. The saint, clad in the habit of a Franciscan friar, stands on a slight eminence, and bends forward with uplifted hand in a gesture of command ; the resuscitated man, naked and cadaverous, attends with a painful effort to the saint’s questioning ; between the two stands a woman with arms outspread, as if passionately protesting the innocence of the man mistakenly accused of the murder. This central group, emphasised by being thrown against a luminous background of open sky, is executed with great feeling and dramatic effect. The problem of giving unity and cohesion to a circular composition Goya has solved by an original and telling device. Round the base of the cupola he painted a plain balustrade, against which lean a crowd of men, women and children, the more or less indifferent spectators of the miracle. The effect is startlingly realistic, unlike that of any other fresco I have ever seen. One receives the impression of a crowd of people, not merely represented, but actually present in the gallery of the church.

Goya has shifted the centre of interest from the saint to the crowd—just as we should expect him to do. Saints did not interest him, the crowd always did. Moreover he did not paint an imaginary crowd—a thirteenth-century Italian crowd—he painted the crowd as he knew it, the crowd of Madrid. Here are majas and courtesans with mantillas over their heads and fans in their hands resting their elbows on the rail of the balustrade and gazing indifferently down into the church below, dandies with their cloaks and pigtails and three-cornered hats, bare-armed women who look as if they had just come from washing clothes in the Manzanares, as indeed they probably had, beggars, loafers, street crabs sitting astride the railing—the whole tag-rag and bobtail of the pueblo bajo. Some look across at the saint in amazement, others throw him a disinterested glance, most laugh and chatter among themselves.

This representation of a miracle of the Church has provoked a vast deal of criticism, most of which appears to me to be much ado about nothing. ” All that the Church paintings of the past had created is despised, forgotten,” exclaims Richard Muther, ” and this satire upon the Church and all its works in the land of Zurbaran and Murillo ! ”

Another critic remarks : ” Not one of his country-men realised the irreverent irony of his work.” Quite true—the priest saying Mass this morning was not in the least upset, so far as I could see, each time he turned round and faced the decoration to wish us his Dominus vobiscum, by any suspicion of an ironical intention in the frescoes. And yet another critic marvels that Goya’s Spanish apologists see ” no impropriety or extravagance in surrounding the figure of a reverend saint with a crowd of roysterers, prostitutes, cutpurses and Manzanares scoundrels.” 2 And yet I do not remember ever to have heard the Evangelists charged with impropriety or extravagance in surrounding a Figure more revered even than St Anthony with publicans and sinners. ” Casanova transferred to colour,” the allusion is perhaps more apt than the writer intended. It is difficult to determine whether a more vivid picture of the citizens of Madrid in the latter half of the eighteenth century is presented by this fresco or by Casanova’s description of them in the seventh volume of his Memoirs. It almost seems as if it were the critic and not the painter who had forgotten all that the Church paintings of the past had created. No doubt it is the business of the preacher to underline the moral of the great events of ecclesiastical history, but the tradition of the Church painters has been rather to present them dramatically, transferring the scene from the historical past to the actual present. In ” getting vital truth out of the vital present ” Goya assuredly did not abandon the great tradition of the Church’s art.

That the profane crowd seldom responds to the inner significance of any spiritual event that is taking place in its midst is distressing but none the less true. As I looked at Goya’s fresco in the Church of San Antonio, and reflected upon the comments that it had provoked, I could not help calling to mind an event that I had seen the day before—the open-air Mass in the Paseo de la Castellana, which was celebrated on the occasion of the jura de la bandera, the ceremony of the kissing of the flag by the new recruits., Let it be supposed that a painter had been commissioned to depict the scene at the most solemn moment of the rite, that of the Elevation of the Host, in what manner should he have treated it ? According to these critics who see irony and irreverence in any representation of the heedlessness of the mob, I suppose he should have treated it ideally, as a moment of intense popular emotion, drawing a solemn significance from the long lines of kneeling infantry, the abasement of the regimental colours, the adoration of the monarch, the hush and awe of the crowd. As edifying a scene as the pious mind could wish, but unfortunately one quite at variance with the facts. Where I was standing, not far from the flower-decked altar, all was confusion and uproar. The people in the crowd jostled one another and tiptoed to get a better view. An enterprising fellow who had improvised a stand with a plank and a couple of stools vociferously invited the spectators to get up and see the show—” Two reals, the best view of the Mass and the Kings, two reals ! ” And a woman with a basket of oranges never ceased bawling out : ” Two fat oranges a penny ! ” In the carriages behind, ladies in mantillas fanned themselves and gossiped. Only here and there a man or a woman attempted to kneel in the midst of the crowd. Nothing in the least edifying—but thus it happened.

” Thus it happened,” these were the words that Goya scratched beneath an etching depicting some scene of outrage in the War of Independence ; he might have written them under every picture that he painted. How St Anthony’s miracle actually happened, and whether it ever happened at all, he probably knew little and cared less ; but he knew all about the Madrid crowd and he knew that so they would have stared and chattered and fanned themselves had one been raised from the dead in their midst.

The frescoes upon the spandrels and the four arches flanking the cupola seem to have shocked the critics even more than the scene of the miracle. It is here, I suppose, that we are to detect the atmosphere of the boudoir. Goya gave to his figures in the cathedral of Zaragoza a background of pure paradisal flame-coloured light, to those of Aula Dei the serene light of day and the freshness of windy skies ; here he has excluded the sense of infinitude by surrounding his figures with gold-spangled silk hangings. Unquestionably the atmosphere is a little stifling, perhaps even scented. The figures themselves are angels and cherubs—or rather that is what they are intended to be—as a matter of fact, they are very captivating, prettily dressed young ladies and very jolly fleshy babies. Here again we are told it was Goya’s intention to satirise the Church and the Church’s conception of Paradise. One critic has even discovered that ” the babes are entirely without the illusion of divine origin.” Poor babes, their birth must indeed have been a sleep and a forgetting ! And the angels receive a severe reprimand for being ” wanton,” ” venturesome,” ” piquant,” and muck else which it appears that an angel cannot be without grave irregularity. One is reminded of the Chapter of El Pilar, and their objection to the indiscreet draperies of the figure of Charity. One is also reminded of a saying of Courbet’s, ” Paint angels ? But who on earth has ever seen an angel ? ” I really don’t know that there is anything more to be said.

What is a painter to do when he is commissioned to paint a mystical, sexless being like an angel ?

All that he can do is to paint the human form divine, and attach a pair of wings. Probably he will also seek to give to the expression certain ideal qualities of purity, strength, serenity or benignity. The early Italians seem to have preferred the type of girlhood in order to express a grave, wondering, virginal innocence or even sexlessness. The angels of Velasquez and Murillo hint at the peasant model, sober, robust and maternal. There is no essential difference between the angel in Velasquez’s ” Christ at the Column ” and the peasant woman who represents the much-cumbered Martha in his ” Christ in the House of Martha.” The Burne-Jones type of angel is merely a hollow-checked, pale-lipped, ascetic young man. Goya’s ideal of angelhood was at one with his ideal of womanhood. And the qualities which he appears to have desiderated in woman were, first, physical beauty, and next, that melting, rather invertebrate tenderness which for his age constituted the ultimate charm of the sex.

His ideal seems to have undergone a change since the days when he worked for the monks of Aula Dei in the solitude and serenity of the Aragonese countryside. In his paintings for the monastery, his women have the beauty of an uncorrupted freshness, of natural, happy movement, the half-animal graces which only a life lived close to the soil can bestow. Since then he had become familiar with the life of courts. His friendship with the duchesses of Alba and Osuna had doubtless quite erased his memories of the Pilars of Fuendetodos. Perhaps no man can live long in a capital and keep his soul wholly uncontaminated. The atmosphere of the Court never weakened the fibres of Goya’s robust virility and independence of character, yet I am inclined to think that he breathed the tainted air to his hurt. This silken paradise, inhabited by angels of a delicious and hectic beauty, is the work of a man who is losing touch with grave, simple and elemental things, who has exchanged the vision of the far horizon for that of the soft hangings of the boudoir, who is more familiar with the sophisticated graces of the mondaine than with the spontaneous gestures of a child of nature. Standing beneath the painted silk canopies of the chapel one remembers a little longingly the pure, sparkling air of desolate Fuendetodos.

Mystical and sexless Goya’s angels certainly are not ; their beauty is purely human and feminine, it is even local, Madrileno in fact. Their dress too is very mundane, with more than a suggestion of the theatre. One angelic figure indeed wears a costume identical with that of La Ideal Chelito, whom you may see dancing every evening any time after midnight at the Salon Madrid. Theatrical are their gestures as they pose with telling and self-conscious charm against the gold-dusted curtains. But of the charge of indecorum, of wanton or voluptuous intention, they must be instantly acquitted. They are doing their utmost to look devout ; they are melting with the tenderest sentiment ; they have summoned tears to their long eyelashes to enforce their supplications ; and if they are deliciously beautiful, and cannot help knowing it, must we therefore suspect the sincerity of their devotion ? Fallen angels they may perhaps be, but they aspire with genuine fervour to regain their former innocence. All that there was of delicacy and refinement in Goya’s imagination he has put into these radiant figures. To my thinking, the sceptic in him was in abeyance when he executed these frescoes. He peopled Paradise as he would wish it to have been peopled, and no doubt the Catholic Madrid of his day was in agreement with him. In one act he endeavoured to combine his homage to the Church and to the sex. He was as far from attempting to satirise the Church as the Church was from being scandalised by his work.

This little Church of San Antonio provides a more illuminating commentary upon the condition of religion in Spain, or at all events in Madrid, at the close of the eighteenth century than many books of history. In matters of outward observance Madrid was as punctilious as a town can well be. When a priest carrying the Viaticum passed the door of the theatre did not the doorkeeper cry out, ” God ! ” and was not the performance suspended, audience and actors falling on their knees, until the tinkle of the little bell in the street had passed out of earshot ? But the seed of true religion which struck such mighty roots in Toledo and Avila, and many another city of the Peninsula, fell on stony ground in Madrid. On taking a glance at these frescoes in the once fashionable little church, so gay, so gracious, so mundane, I was irresistibly reminded of the apophthegm which Don Diego, Casanova’s sententious bootmaker, addressed to his daughter, ” Ma fille, la véritable dévotion est inséparable de la gaité.” The sentiment I believe to be thoroughly un-Spanish, but it expresses fitly enough the spirit of San Antonio de la Florida.