The Daily Telegraph
Goya’s demonic monsters confront a saintly Borgia
Amonster with giant yellow cat’s eyes is the first figure to attract attention in a painting in a dark chapel in Valencia Cathedral. Only on revisiting it last week did I realise that this was an original canvas by Francisco Goya, with a companion piece on the opposite wall, both painted in 1786. They were damaged when the cathedral was set on fire by Republican supporters in 1936.
It is fair to say that Goya brings a shiver to the most sunny scenes. The same yellow eyes as in Valencia may be seen in Goya’s oil of cats fighting (a cartoon for a dining-room tapestry for the Prince and Princess of Asturias, 1786), and in the cat intent on a tethered magpie (with Goya’s card in its beak), in a portrait of the little boy Manuel Osorio from the same period.
The art historian Frank Heckes pointed out in 1985 that the picture in the cathedral did not show an exorcism, as many assumed, but was based on an incident in the 18th-century life of St Francis Borgia by Alvaro Cienfuegos. The painting now usually goes by the title St Francis Borgia at the Deathbed of an Impenitent. The point of the painting is that, though he tried, Borgia could not help the man, who refused to repent of his sins and, with the yellow-eyed demon and its companions at his side, headed to hell.
Borgia (1510-72) had a most curious life. The family we call Borgias are called Borjas by the Spanish, having their origin in Borja, Aragon. His grandfather on his father’s side was the bastard son of Pope Alexander VI and was murdered, perhaps by his own brother, Cesare. His grandfather on his mother’s side, Archbishop of Zaragoza from the age of nine, was the bastard son of Ferdinand the Catholic, King of Aragon. A promising career awaited Francis.
Married and the father of eight children, Francis became Duke of Gandia in 1543. He was a courtier and an accomplished composer of music. Eternity intruded when he had to accompany the body of Elizabeth of Portugal, consort of the Emperor Charles V, to its burial in Granada. He was said to have been horrified by her decomposing face.
He was also moved by a funeral address by John of Avila, declared a saint surprisingly recently, in 1970. Francis resolved to change his life and, after his wife’s death in 1546, decided to join the Jesuits, founded in 1540. In 1550 he took leave of his family, the subject of the companion piece in Valencia Cathedral. His youngest son was 12.
A paper from 2020 in a learned journal of neurology (taking the subject of the picture as epilepsy) says that the deathbed scene shows “an indignant St Francis hurling the bleeding crucifix and cursing the impenitent to eternal damnation”. This, the author claims, is in the life of Borgia by Cienfuego [sic]. It says nothing of the sort. Cienfuegos (Book 4, Chapter 17) tells of how Christ spoke to Borgia from the Crucifix urging him to visit the palace of a prominent gentleman on his deathbed. Borgia told the dying man that eternal happiness would be his if he turned to the Author of Life who had died for him. The dying man turned a deaf ear, and the wounds of the figure of Christ on the Cross began to bleed. Freeing one nailed hand from the cross, the figure of Christ, at the man’s refusal, threw out blood on to his scowling face, saying: “Since you scorn this blood, which was shed for your glory, let it serve for your eternal unhappiness.” The man let out a dying blasphemy and gave up his soul to “the infamous ministers of fire and fear”. It is a narrative of horror.
Francis lived on with a reputation for holiness. He became superior general of the Jesuits in 1565 and died in 1572, visited on his deathbed by all his children and grandchildren.