Art. History. Culture.
Carnival, carne vale in Latin, means “farewell to meat.”
We recently celebrated Carnival/Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras. We engorged ourselves on greasy meats, King cakes, paczkis and other empty carbs, perhaps even a cordial or two. Or twelve.
After Ash Wednesday, we observe Lent, a 40 day period in the liturgical calendar reserved for atonement, self-denial, giving of alms, and seafood. Although today’s Catholic can enjoy meat during the week without fear of judgement, it is still abstained from on Fridays during Lent. In centuries past, eating meat on any day during Lent was a major sin, but hey, religions evolve. We have studies of common Carnival practices from many different cultures. Thanks to the genius of Francisco de Goya, we also have a rare artistic depiction of the closing ceremonies of the Spanish festival.
In Madrid, Carnival tradition includes a processional on Ash Wednesday involving some mourners and a sardine. A ritual funeral procession for a single dead fish may seem strange, but it supposedly has its roots in history. The tradition, according to legend, began at some point during the reign of Carlos III (1759-1788). A shipment of sardines was sent to Madrid for Lent, but when the containers were opened it was discovered that the fish were rotten. The aggrieved king ordered the sardines to be buried, lest they stink up the entire city, and Madrid thus endured Lent sans sardines. How this event turned into a festival one can only speculate. But in Spain, what’s one more festival to add to the calendar? It could be that the event became tradition due to the religious connotations of the burial of fish, or burying the sardine could even be symbolic of the custom of personal sacrifice during Lent.
On the surface, Goya’s Burial of the Sardine is a documentary of this ritual. Yet there is much more to the underlying tone of the painting than a lighthearted festival. At the time this work was painted Goya was an incredibly old, stone-deaf cynic on the verge of his famous Black Paintings era. The darkness of those works is foreshadowed here, more so in theme than in color. This composition depicts the ritual of the ending of Carnival festivities showing a mob of participants in masks and dressed in drag dancing and celebrating. A deeper, more sinister atmosphere is sensed when considering the progression of the crowd in drunken confusion, the unsteady movement, and the menacing look of many of the masks and the figures flanking the dancers at left. An array of dangerous creatures begin to take form, and what is more, the namesake of this ritual is nowhere to be found. There is no sardine.
Instead of a sardine as our main protagonist, we have a prominent black banner being held up in the middle of the scene. A large, dark and distorted face looks down upon the festival from this banner, grinning a wide, stupid, toothy grin. This face was repeated a number of times in Goya’s work, a face he commonly painted on figures to implicate them as fools or villians. Goya’s characteristic fool was given grotesque features to indicate him as guilty of folly. A trait of Goya’s work throughout his long career, he was often interested in exposing the follies and vices of society through means of dark humor such as this. In Burial of the Sardine, Goya’s fool watches over the mob as if he were the king of the idiots, gazing across the scene of debauchery with a fond smile. Also worth noting is Goya’s sketch of this painting, which was drawn with a different sort of banner displaying the word MORTVS (“mortus,” meaning death) above a creature which could be a sardine. Why did Goya change his composition from this memento mori to a gigantic fool’s face with an evil grin? I believe it is because he couldn’t resist the opportunity to return to a darker, more satiric scene than a message of religious value. With the face of the fool acting as the overseer to the revelry, Goya accuses all of the festival goers as guilty of blind hysteria and folly.
Having been to see this work in person at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, where Goya once taught, I can tell you it is a somewhat disturbing picture to behold. I stood in the Goya room staring at Burial of the Sardine long enough for a group of Asians on a guided tour to literally steamroll over me so they could take photos of the painting with their digital cameras (making a mental note now to tell you the rest of that story another day – it’s a dandy). Thankfully, the Goya room is very close to the front of the museum and, thankfully, the polite docent did not let her tour group linger as there were plenty more big names of the likes of Rubens, Arcimboldo and Correggio to see.
When the Asian group moved on, digital cameras in tow, I tried to refocus on the painting. It is a relatively small panel but no less striking. Knowing Goya as I’d like to think I know him, Burial of the Sardine is a composition laden with satire and dark humor. Underneath this seemingly pleasant procession is a slight tone of madness. In the ambiguity of the masked figures and their erratic movement, Goya depicts the irrationality of the mob. Even the small children become a bit creepy. Gazing at this painting I realized that this is a festival that I would never want to be a part of. It’s the kind of scene that would cause me, if I were there and suddenly separated from my companions, to crouch low hugging my knees in silent prayer, wanting nothing more than to get the hell out of there. Goya’s festival is not the silly debauchery of a simple party, but a representation of sin, confusion and belligerent disorder.
While contemplating the themes of dark humor in this work, I continually looked over my shoulder at Goya himself. Across the room atop a pedestal is situated a bust of the great Modern painter sculpted by Spanish neoclassicist Mariano Benlliure.
Not being able to ignore Goya’s harsh gaze, I walked over to him, meeting his height almost exactly. Looking him in the eye I felt his intensity, his judgement and his superiority as I never had before in my countless hours spent studying him, my most beloved painter. His cynical personality so clearly rendered in this bust with narrowed eyes, furrowed brow and pursed lips, I had to remind myself that I was having a staring contest with a chunk of sculpted rock. Of course Goya, looking right through me with his perpetual judgement, won the staring contest. My gaze then downcast, I shrunk away from Goya’s judgement feeling significantly smaller than I did before.