Three Goya paintings that help explain the climate crisis and the way forward

January 27, 2021

Copyright: Museo Nacional del Prado

Legendary Spanish painter Francisco de Goya died in 1828, more than 100 years before the manmade climate crisis began to harm creation throughout the world.

But looking back at some of his work through the lens of the climate emergency and with the teachings of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI, Goya’s paintings can help all of us discern the way forward.

Monsignor Fernando Chica Arellano, Vatican City’s permanent observer to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, analyzed three of Goya’s paintings – Perro semihundido, or The Drowning Dog,; El coloso, or The Colossus, and Duelo a garrotazos, or Duel with Cudgels – through the see, judge, act structure of Catholic Social Teaching.

1820 – 1823. Mixed method on mural transferred to canvas. Copyright: Museo Nacional del Prado

See: “The dog looks scared at a horizon that it does not understand and, at the same time seems to sink into the ground. Everything in the picture transmits sadness, loneliness and fear. Although we can’t identify it well, it seems that the dog recognizes some kind of external threat that, at the same time, holds him inwardly,” writes Mons. Arellano.

Judge: The painting seems to show an undesirable atmosphere, similar to those plots of land all over the world that are changing as the climate crisis worsens and the speed of desertification – the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas – increases.

“The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming” (LS 51).

Act: Mons. Arellano encourages all of us not to simply look at what’s happening. We should take time to think about the children, families, and communities affected by this and to consider the root causes of the climate crisis.

As Pope Benedict XVI said in his inaugural Mass, “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”

1818 – 1825. Oil on canvas. Copyright: Museo Nacional del Prado

See: “A gigantic human-shaped figure frightens the population, which is forced into a dramatic migratory movement. Families and entire communities are fleeing a tangible threat, which originally seems to allude to war, but which may well represent the effects of climate change and of desertification,” writes Mons. Arellano.

Judge: The climate emergency is already forcing people to evacuate their homes, and it’s forcing other communities to make difficult, if not impossible, choices: stay home and risk our well-being, or leave into the unknown with the hopes of a better life?

In 2019, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, nearly 1,900 disasters caused 24.9 million new displacements throughout the world.

“There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever” (LS 25).

Act: The forced movement of nearly 25 million people isn’t happening by chance, Mons. Arellano writes. Therefore we must unite and work against the climate emergency so that all of our sisters and brothers have a place to call home in creation.

1820 – 1823. Mixed method on mural transferred to canvas. Copyright: Museo Nacional del Prado

See: “We find two men fighting in a physical, direct, and violent confrontation.”

Judge: Mons. Arellano writes that the painting is helpful because it shows us what not to do. As the climate emergency damages creation, we should not turn on each other, as the men in Goya’s painting have done.

“We must, on the contrary, be aware that our destiny is common,” Arellano writes.

This is why the world comes together every year on 17 June, the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, to raise awareness, lift up international efforts, and help care for the world’s dryland ecosystems, which cover a third of the world’s land area.

Such ecosystems are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation, and “poverty, political instability, deforestation, overgrazing, and bad irrigation practices” all can worsen the condition of the land, according to the UN.

Reforestation efforts in Indonesia. Photo by James Anderson/World Resources Institute.

Dryland ecosystems are especially at risk of deteriorating on a warmer planet as well. As human activity produces more and more greenhouse gas emissions, more moisture evaporates from the Earth, creating drier conditions.

Arellano proposes eight practical solutions to the problem, including reforestation projects, growing trees on terraces, and stabilizing sand dunes.

“God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement. Let us not leave in our wake a swath of destruction and death which will affect our own lives and those of future generations,” Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium.

Act: “It is essential to take further steps, to unite wills, to involve governments, the international community, academic and research institutions, civil society actors, and the private sector,” Arellano writes.

Most importantly, all of us can undergo an ecological conversion in which we embrace our role in creation, not as its exploiter, but as its guardian and custodian.

“Each community can take from the bounty… but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations” (LS 67).