Follow in Goya’s footsteps – from Aragon’s monasteries to Madrid

Michael Hodges goes in search of the Spanish master and finds a goat-headed demon, ugly royals and sublime murals

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In 2003 BritArt brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman bought a complete set of Francisco de Goya’s The Disasters of War prints. They then painted cartoon faces over one of the great artist’s most revered works.

Happily, for visitors to “Goya: the Portraits”, currently running at the National Gallery, they stopped there – but if you really want to see Goya’s work in a new light, take the trip to his native Spain.

Humble beginning

Goya was born in a cottage in the hill village of Fuendetodos, near Zaragoza in the northern region of Aragon, on 30 March 1746 – and you can visit his first home today. Livestock lived downstairs (perhaps that’s why donkeys appear often in his work), the young Goya and his family above. The massive fireplace is no longer used for cooking, but don’t fret, the village café serves sublime tortilla, piles of garlicky chorizo and plenty of the region’s inky red wine.

Goya painted two scenes at Zaragoza’s Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar

Monastery murals

In his 20s, Goya went to Italy to study Renaissance and classical art. Inspired, he came back and painted the scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary that line the chapel at Cartuja de Aula Dei, Aragon, a 16th-century walled monastery ten miles outside Zaragoza. Some suffered a clumsy restoration 100 years ago, but in others you can see the confidently simple brushstrokes that mark the beginnings of a distinct style that would usher in modernism. The resident Catholic community welcomes visitors of all faiths to the monastery’s remarkable beehive structure. 


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Heaven’s above!

When Goya painted two religious scenes – The Queen of Martyrs and The Adoration of the Word of God – on the ceilings of the domes of Zaragoza’s Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, priests climbed the scaffolding and mocked the lack of detail, missing the point that it was meant to be seen from below. Look up today through the gloom of this marvellously atmospheric church dedicated to an appearance of the Virgin Mary, and you’ll favour Goya’s vision. Afterwards, pick up the AVE high-speed train to Madrid – it takes only an hour and 20 minutes to shoot through the bleakly beautiful mountain country that took Goya three weeks to traverse when he made the journey south in search of fame.

Genius for hire

Large religious commissions were Goya’s way of advertising his talents before he became a Royal Court painter. The Basílica de San Francisco el Grande, a neoclassical rotunda on Avenue Gran Via de San Francisco is home to his very big – about a double-decker bus tall – rendering of San Bernardino de Siena caught in a beam of heavenly light amidst a transfixed crowd of believers. Basílica de San Francisco el Grande isn’t on the must-see lists, so you’re likely to get it to yourself – unless you go on a Saturday morning when you may encounter a wedding.

War artist

Madrid’s unsurpassable Prado museum is well worth the queues that form long before its 10am opening. Once inside – if you can bear to bypass the El Greco, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Bosch, Rubens, Rembrandt and more – you’ll find a set of The Disasters of War illustrating the obscene results of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. The Prado also holds Goya’s totemic The Third of May 1808, showing a faceless French firing squad gunning down despairing Spanish prisoners. Alongside Picasso’s Guernica (which is around the corner at the Museo Reina Sofia), it has just claim to being the greatest-ever work of art about war. 

Madrid’s Prado museum

Feed the muse

Goya was no pale aesthete, but a man who liked hunting, wine and meat. He was a regular to Casa Botín, which is only minutes from the Plaza Mayor and is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest restaurant in the world. Tradition dictates you have suckling pig and, going down to the cellars, you can see racks of piglets awaiting the ovens. If you’re lucky, the owner will give an impromptu history lesson at your table. A wonderful experience – if you like pork.


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Devil in the details

As Goya aged he became fascinated by the rural witchcraft of his youth. At the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, on Madrid’s Calle de Serrano, you’ll find the deeply unsettling El gran cabrón, a painting in which old crones offer babies to be devoured by a goat-headed demon in a brooding landscape. If you’re unnerved by the darkness of Goya’s vision, take the sun in the museum’s small but delightful garden.

A statue of Goya at Zaragoza’s Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar

Court jester

Goya was elected to the Spanish Royal Academy (Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando), in 1785, still housed today in a late-baroque palace near La Puerta del Sol in central Madrid (scene of his Second of May 1808). Four years later he was made painter to the Royal Court. Famously Goya portrayed the already ugly Bourbons as even uglier than they actually were, but he had a particular dislike of the despotic Ferdinand VII. In one equestrian portrait of Ferdinand, among the many wonderful Goyas at the Royal Academy, he has deliberately got the scale wrong so that the rider is bigger than the clumsily executed horse. The king looks delightfully daft.  


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Goya: the Portraits at the National Gallery runs until 10 January 2016. Jake Chapman on Goya is on BBC4 on Sunday 10th January.