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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Pilgrimage

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828)
La Romería de San Isidro (The Pilgrimage of St Isidore)
1820 - 1823
Mural transferred to canvas
138,5 cm x 436 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid



In February 1819, aged 73, Goya bought a farmhouse outside Madrid - the House of the Deaf Man.

In it, straight on the plaster of its walls, Goya painted his last cycle of big pictures : the Pinturas Negras, the "Black Paintings".

One of them is now entitled "La Romería de San Isidro" (The Pilgrimage of St Isidore)

St Isisdore is the patron saint of Madrid. Each year on his feast day there was a great procession from Madrid to the hermitage of St Isidore. It was then quite a small city - just under 150,000 people in the 1780s. Almost the whole citizenry attended.

Goya had painted a number of paintings of the event: bright, festive and most beautiful during his youth. Two of them are also in the Prado: La ermita de San Isidro el día de la fiesta (1788)and La pradera de San Isidro (1788)


The mural is completely different: dark and sombre. Neither descriptive nor narrative but didactic and, it is said, satiric.

Painted after the French Revolution, the Peninsular Wars and a Spanish Civil War, which tore Spain apart, it is said that Goya is expressing his dislike of the superstition and ignorance of the ordinary people (at least on the official Prado website).

Would one want it to be a permanent feature of one`s house - in fact in the most prominent place in the house ? Surely not.

It depicts poverty and suffering but also one of Goya`s main themes: pilgrims on the march

The characters at the front of the work are crazy, leering, howling, glaring . . . almost as if a world of moral chaos or not how we are accustomed to view the world

Perhaps a way into this painting, one of Goya`s most private and intimate works, is through one short story by the American writer, Flannery O`Connor (1925 – 1964)

In “Revelation” O`Connor tells the parable of Mrs Ruby Turpin, a white Southern woman in the early segregated Sixties, a “country female Jacob”

Ruby has an exalted view of her station in life and in religious life:

"Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people.

On the bottom of the heap were most coloured people, but not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them—not above, just away from—were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged.

Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were coloured people who owned their homes and land as well. ...

When I think of all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you Jesus, for making everything the way it is! It could have been different!’"

Ruby Turpin has a bad day.

While visiting the doctor`s surgery filled with people beneath her station, she is called “a wart hog from hell” by a psychotic woman and knocked unconscious by someone throwing a book at her which hits her on the head.

Later at home while in pig pen she shouts at the Lord and she hears the voice of the Lord echoing back to her

Then Mrs. Turpin has a vision perhaps of Purgatory:

"There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. [Ruby] raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound.

A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.

Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n----s in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.

And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given with to use it right . . . .

They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. . . .

Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away . . . .

In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.

At length she got down . . . and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah."

Flannery O’Connor, From “Revelation,” from Everything That Rises Must Converge (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965),