By the gothic Church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona’s iconic El Born neighborhood, a memorial stands next to a cemetery of profound sentimental value to most Catalan people: the Fossar de les Moreres, a mass grave where many defenders and civilians who died during the 1714 siege of Barcelona were buried. A huge painting covers an entire building at one corner of the Fossar de les Moreres; a reproduction of an epic painting by Antoni Estruch titled ‘September 11th, 1714’. September 11th is the day on which the Bourbon troops finally took Barcelona, thus bringing the War of Succession to an end and sealing the fate of Catalonia forever. It is also the Catalan National Day.
The original painting is now on show at the Museum of Catalan History in Barcelona as part of the city’s cultural program to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the ‘fall’ (the program includes signposted itineraries, lectures, documentaries, exhibitions, marches of protest, etc.). Politics apart, my interest in this painting is purely aesthetic.
The painting, produced between 1907 and 1909, is a monumental work (4 meters x 2.5 meters) by the Catalan painter Antoni Estruch. Hailed as the new ‘Fortuny’ (after Catalonia’s genius painter, Marià Fortuny), Estruch developed an interest in history painting with a particular skill for capturing anecdotal moments. The painting captures the moment in which Rafael Casanova, one of the great heroes that defended Barcelona in 1714, falls dead, surrounded by his ‘brothers in arms’ and holding the flag of St Eulàlia, a 4th century Christian martyr from Barcelona. An adequate and suggestive choice: Casanova and his companions are understood to be martyrs too, fighting against the ‘secular’ French troops.
There is a Goyesque quality in this artwork. One can only think of Goya’s ‘Third of May’ when we contemplate the body language of the figures to the right, and the contrast between the spontaneity of the Catalan fighters to the right and the organized march of the ghastly French troops that seem to advance like a killing machine, springing out from the smoke to the left. Rafael Casanova occupies centre stage: his death seems to mark a turning point as everything crumbles down around him. Still, his raised arm seems to mark the way in agony: his body has been fatally wounded, his spirit never crushed. The fact that he and his fellow Catalans were defending the city from an elevated place (Bastion of St Pere, whose massive wall can be seen in the bottom) and the smoke that shrouds the entire group lend a sense of awe to the scene: they become saintly freedom fighters belonging to the realm of Heaven, as the smoke turns into clouds.
If you think of the painting as a storyline, the painting can also be read from left to right, following an emotional crescendo: The French advance decisively, the guns point at them and then shift sideways, the arms are raised and faces turn away, and the defeat is embodied in the image of the man covering his face with his hand (bottom right).