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Burial Of The Sardine

Painting, 1814, 82.5×62 cm

Description of the artwork «Burial Of The Sardine»

Francisco Goya is a specialist in horror stories and plots that are difficult to understand. His Los caprichos even contained inscriptions, without which the artist’s intention would be difficult, and sometimes completely impossible to understand. However, the painting on issue doesn't fit into this series of Goya's personal fantasies. The Burial of the Sardine is not a product of the author's fantasy but a real Spanish ceremony with a hint of absurdity.

Why would the Spaniards bury a sardine?

On Ash Wednesday marking the beginning of Lent, the inhabitants of Madrid and other Spanish cities, as well as Spanish colonies in Latin America, rushed to the streets in a noisy crowd. The crowded procession carried a huge fish made from improvised materials. There were fictitious tears and loud funny crying all around. The closest to the untimely dead fish were the loudly lamenting "widows" with black mustaches – a group of dressed up Spanish men. All those walking expressed inconsolable grief, inevitably turning into a folk festival with songs and dances. The aim of the fish burial is the same as that of any carnival: have fun and swag for a while so that it's enough for all seven weeks of the upcoming Lent. At the end of the holiday, a stuffed fish was burned (just like the Cheesefare effigy on a similar holiday), and the ashes were thrown into the water.

Nowadays, this custom, with strict observance of the established rituals, is best preserved on Tenerife – the largest island of the Canary Islands archipelago which used to be a Spanish colony. In the 16th century, the Iberian conquistadors brought from Spain not only influenza and smallpox, but also the Catholic religion and accompanying rituals like the comic funeral of a dead fish, depicted in the famous painting by Francisco Goya.

Theories of the origin of The Burial of the Sardine

The exequy of a dead fish is meaningless only from the point of view of a rationalist. But in the carnival mind, turning the world upside down and preferring a happy chaos to order – nothing is impossible. According to one of the versions, the burial of fish is a variation of another, even more ancient, carnival ritual. There was a time when before the Lent it was customary in Spain to bury a pig stuck specifically for that purpose. The name of such sacrifice – cerdna – was consonant with the word "sardine", so in time people began to bury it: the more absurd, the more fun!
Other version associates the ritual with the painter's era: supposedly, under king Carlos III, the first patron of the artist, people were treated to rotten sardines during the carnival. But the meal was accompanied by so much wine that the citizens were not offended, and decided to hold a solemn funeral for the prematurely deceased fish.

The importance of the painting in Goya’s work

Fred Licht, a Goyaist, wrote, "The Burial of the Sardine is also one of the most astonishing virtuoso performances to come down to us from Goya's brush. Rarely did Goya again reach such decisiveness of touch. Every brushstroke is a calligraphic marvel at the same time that it describes with consummate precision the expression of faces and the emotional charge of each stance or gesture. We have arrived here at the perfect balancing point between the early tapestry cartoons and the later Black Paintings. All the riotous gaiety of the former appeals to the eye from the surface of the painting. But in the darkening of the colors, in the masklike ambiguity of the faces... and especially in the overwrought gestures and expressions, one begins to feel the obscurely disturbing undertones of mass hysteria underlying the fiesta."

The revanche of The Burial of the Sardine

Now the painting is stored at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando (Madrid). It is interesting that in 1763 and 1767 the young Goya, eager to study there, submitted his paintings to the contest, but was refused since his unusual style proved to be too far from the academician's ideas of the beautiful. However, now he is regarded as the greatest artist in Spain after Velázquez, and the Academy of San Fernando considers it an honour to have his paintings, including The Burial of the Sardine, in its' collection.

Author: Anna Vchorashnia
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Genre scene

Style of art: Romanticism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Wood

Date of creation: 1814

Size: 82.5×62 cm

Artwork in selections: 29 selections

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