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Goya and disasters of war

The recently-released film ‘The Duke’ is a delightful romp for film veterans Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent.

Rev David Clarke
Rev David Clarke

It recalls an astonishing event in 1961 when the most famous portrait of the Duke of Wellington, by the Spanish artist Goya, was stolen from the National Gallery in London.

Central to the story is the eccentric campaigner Kempton Bunton, greatly obsessed about free television licences for the elderly.

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Although Bunton served a prison sentence for the offence, the real offender was his son, and the older man took the rap for him.

Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes was a Spanish painter and engraver famous for portraits of four successive kings of Spain. Many of his paintings are less bland, conveying the horrors of the French invasion of Spain by Napoleon.

One of his most famous paintings is entitled, ‘The Third of May 1808’, where a terrified white-shirted Spaniard, with arms raised in a Christlike pose, faces a French firing-squad.

A series of etchings, ‘The disasters of war’ prompted a servant to ask ‘Why do you paint these barbarities that men commit?’.

Goya answered, ‘To tell men forever that they should not be barbarians’.

Television and newspapers have helped us to see the barbarities that can be committed in our technological age, with the indiscriminate bombing of residential areas, hospitals and schools, all to fulfil the mad dream of a dictator.

Pundits will debate for decades the political and diplomatic mis-steps that have led to the conflict in Ukraine.

For me, it underlines the warning given by the distinguished historian Herbert Butterfield that ‘each generation is equidistant from barbarism’.

For all our advances, the raw human passions which unleash the dogs of war are never far from the surface. Truly we are technological giants but ethical pygmies.

The author of the Book of James in the New Testament asked a probing question; ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? (James 4;1).

He answered his own question thus; ‘Don’t they come from our desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight’ (James 4; 2).

Normal human impulses, when unrestrained, are capable of wreaking havoc in human relations. It is anger uncontrolled, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matthew 5; 22) that eventually leads to murder.

Small wonder that Paul listed ‘self-control’, as one of the fruits of God’s Spirit in the human life (Galatians 5; 23).

Mr. Putin and others of his ilk would do well to remember the word of the Old Testament sage, ‘Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city’ (Proverbs 16;32).