In this series, we examine aspects of death and bereavement through art, olfaction, and imaginative thinking. Feel free to follow along at home and leave your take on this scented death meditation below.
This Week’s Muse
St. Francis Borgia at the Death Bed of an Impenitent, Francisco Goya, 1788
As this is the last of October’s Scent the Scenes and tomorrow is Halloween I wanted to end the month with a painting that looks like it is cut from a horror film. Francisco Goya is often called mad, but I think that is an uncharitable description of him. Goya was a deeply sensitive artist that had a great connection to humanity for better or worse.
In his life, he was known for his court paintings of the royal family and bucolic country vistas. Yet, he was highly critical of the crown and inserted little jabs like painting the king shorter than the queen, as a subtle hint at who he thought was really in charge, or portraying the princesses standing in front of a painting of Lot’s Daughters (a reference to rumoured incest).
However, life took a turn with the Penisula War and then the violent return of the absolute monarchy. Goya was compelled to document the horrors of war though it tormented him. He is responsible for some of the earliest realistic paintings of capital punishment and war that we have. There is no glory in Goya’s war and no justice in his punishment. After his wife’s death and two major illnesses, he sank into his darkest phase with a set of paintings called the Black Paintings. His darker works, including this one, were not shown until thirty years after his death as they were thought to be too raw, powerful, grotesque and emotional for the general public and therefore unsellable. Now, however, most people know Goya for his ability to balance paranormal dread with real human cruelty.
St. Francis Borgia at the Death Bed of an Impenitent was painted in Goya’s mid-period just before the start of the Peninsula War. Goya often made these private paintings in criticism of political and religious corruption that was rampant in Spain at the time, and that is probably what is going on here. Our impenitent man lays on an opulent bed with fancy bed curtains in a large room. It is unclear if he is wracked by fear or is already died. His body appears stiff and sunken like a corpse. His expression is unclear as to whether he wants or even understands that the saint is trying to rid him of his demons. The bed drapes divide the light of the space between the sinister shadows of the left side of the painting where demons hungrily wait and the right side where St. Francis stands resplendent in the light of purity. The crucifix that he holds has miraculously started to bleed, and as you can see in the detail image, the wee Christ figure has wrenched his right hand off the nail of the cross and is showering the unrepentant man in his blood to keep the demons away.
Scent the Scene
This is an allegory of a life lived wrongly, and the terror death can hold, even for the wealthy, at such an end. So how would we scent this scene? It isn’t going to be pretty.
I’m thinking Blood, lots of blood, bucks of nickel-like cloying blood with a touch of Raw Hamburger to really drive home the carnality of this scene. Smoke and Burning Rubber would make the perfect acrid miasma rising off the demons. Civet for the very opulent but animalic nature of our dying man. Then humble Wool, Candlewax, and Polished Mahogany for the blessed simplicity of our saint.
That’s how I smell it, but what about you? How would you scent a scene that involves a cross shooting blood? How does a darker work affect you death meditation? Leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscribe to the DS&LG and never miss a scene.