Religious Satire in Eighteenth Century Spain: Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos

Andrea Burnham

In Francisco Goya’s 1799 print series Los Caprichos, Spanish society is lampooned through satirical commentary. Some plates comment on the conspicuous position of prostitution in Spanish high society, but Goya also focuses on a more influential element: that of the Church. Throughout the series, there are various representations of Spanish society, and none are to be saved from Goya’s parody. The plates expose the Church’s greed and corruption, but they also make a judgment on the blind faith of the people. The clergy and pious men are often associated with the Seven Deadly Sins, particularly greed, gluttony, lust and sloth, in varying degrees. At the time that the series was completed, the Spanish Inquisition was still very much active, and so negative commentary towards the Church had to be done carefully. Goya avoids referencing specific individuals, although he makes it obvious to viewers who the figures in his work are supposed to represent. In this way, many viewers know “that the plates did not depict goblins and spirits but the abbes of Spain, a priest, and a number of monks.”[1] Goya is thus able to protect himself without compromising the integrity of his work and the messages he put forward. His general references also cause all viewers to consider themselves as those depicted, forcing them to consider their own place within Spanish society and religion. By producing a print series, Goya creates socially relevant work that was accessible to the population in an abundant and inexpensive way.

Three plates from Los Caprichos stand out in their illustration of the Church and its followers: They’re Hot,Why Hide Them?, and What a Tailor Can Do!. These pieces provide examples of issues and criticisms aimed at the Church during this time, and since satirical print of this era served as “vehicles for conversation,”[2] they are of interest in this study. Goya very cunningly satirizes the Church and its members in this series, showing them in discreditable situations. There is no embellishment in their piety, only a look into their corruption.

In plate thirteen, They’re Hot (img. 1), three men are seated around a table eating their evening meal and the robes they wear identify them as monks. These monks, however, are not enjoying a typical meal, as there is no food on their plates or on the cutlery going towards their mouths. The title can be interpreted in two ways; if the “heat” in question is caused by the food they consume, then it can symbolize gluttony or, if the heat refers to the monks themselves, the idea that they are losing control over their sexual appetites. The first option assumes that the empty plates are “suggesting [that] the hunger of these grotesque creatures will not be satisfied.”[3] They continue eating nothing at all, demonstrating their constant greed as their mouths hang agape, wanting more and more food. This is one of Goya’s strongest comments on the Church of the time. The Spanish Church owned much land and was quite prosperous, so that “there was little land for an enterprising farmer to buy.”[4] They’re Hot! seems to comment on how the clergy indulged in this injustice. Their insatiable hunger will not be quelled by the food, which they have already finished – not even giving it time to cool. It is notable that gluttony is being associated here with monks, since it is one of the seven deadly sins. As such pious men, they should be able to fully resist temptation and rise above such earthly desires, but they cannot. In addition to Goya’s emphasis on gluttony, he also incorporates the sin of lust into They’re Hot!, as hunger can be interpreted as a need for physical gratification or lust. This interpretation can be suggested if the heat from the title refers to the monks themselves. The monks can be seen as unable to cope with their desires, and as such, they have become animals in heat, lacking self-control.

In this plate, the epitomized gluttony may symbolize the characters’ quest for sexual or physical gratification, suggesting that sex is their main interest instead of their work in the religious institution. In an earlier version of this plate from Goya’s Caricatura alegre Album B of 1796-97 the foremost monk has a more overtly phallic nose than the one in the final version. It helps to emphasize the implied desire of sexual gratification found inWhy Hide Them?   Additionally in both, it has been interpreted that “his open mouth is also an anus”[5]emphasized by the entering spoon, which can be read as a phallic symbol. The phallic element is left out in the final version yet the mouths do not change, carrying on the latter symbolism. With knowledge of the earlier drawing, retained elements such as the stylized mouths, the leering of the third monk (farthest to the right), and the inscription “They’re Hot” may refer to the monks themselves being ‘in heat’. This suggests that there is “an analogy…drawn between gluttony and sexual indulgence.”[6] Through this reference to basic forms of survival; nourishment and propagation, the characters lose their civilized appeal; “the focus on the body is underscored by the heavily lidded eyes, which indicates a diminishment of cognition;”[7] The satire is thus enhanced by the idea that these are the leaders of society, yet they are barely conscious.

In the thirtieth plate, Why Hide Them?, the greed of the Church is considered differently. The depiction of a monk character with full moneybags in his possession denotes his abuse of power in order to profit from prostitution. This is proposed by his pose, the other men in the background, and the moneybags he is holding.The moneybags instantly invoke the ideas of greed and selfishness similarly to They’re Hot! In Why Hide Them? the use of moneybags is related to prostitution, as it is also associated with greed. Additionally, the doubling of the bags bears a distinct likeness to testicles, furthering the sexual implications of the image and allowing prostitution to become the intrinsic meaning of Why Hide Them?[8]

Much about the men standing in the background of the image alludes to sexual encounters or acts. For example, clenched fists can be associated with “the act of masturbating and also to testicles.”[9] The way in which the man with the clenched fist closes his eyes and opens his mouth may indicate a sexual experience; perhaps these men are newly satisfied customers coming to pay for the services provided. Even the monk exudes this idea of sexual overindulgence; the way in which he is slightly crouched and bowlegged denotes sexual excess.[10] The obvious sexual content in the mannerisms of the men is associated with the monk in the foreground, who holds his earning from these trysts. The title Why Hide Them?, referring to the moneybags, seems to be stating that he is proud of his work and the sexual gratification it provides for the other men around him. Even though the seated monk has not partaken in the sexual activities, he becomes directly associated with it’s seediness through the moneybags he holds. The connection of prostitution and testicles bluntly criticizes the Church’s prominent role in organizing a sex trade, something they are expected to denounce. The title, however, seems to be sarcastically commending these acts rather than reprimanding them. The cleric is encouraged by the men in the background to be proud of his work and the title reinforces that idea.

As shown in the previously discussed They’re Hot! the inclusion of an open mouth can represent an anus or vagina. This reoccurs in Why Hide Them? as the slack jawed cleric is surrounded by the grinning figures that have made payment. The services they request are being represented by the open mouth, their payment for sexual gratification, not from the man in the forefront but from the prostitutes he represents. He symbolizes this because he appears to be the one facilitating the transactions. The open mouth and its vulgar implication[11]continually connect back to the sins of gluttony, lust and sloth, which extend to prostitution, and are a recurring visual element of Los Caprichos. The monk’s face seems distorted or disfigured, and his skin appears slightly shriveled as it twists in pain. This sort of face is seen in another plate from Los Caprichos, plate 17: A Young Woman Pulling Up Her Stocking (img 3). In this plate, a young woman is dressing while an older woman, whose face is distorted in a similar way to that of the monk’s, watches her. The act of pulling up the stocking identifies the woman as a prostitute[12], so by extension the sagging faces of the old woman and the monk become associated with prostitution. Both faces reflect “the moral ugliness of her profession and the future of the young protégée, [the] prostitute.”[13] With this correlation it seems that there can be no alternate meaning for the scene: the clergy was profiting off of the sins which they punished the congregations for committing. The idea of the clergy as swindlers or greedy men is exemplified the most in What a Tailor Can Do! 

In What a Tailor Can Do! (img 4), a pious woman is depicted among a large crowd of fellow Christians, in front of a so-thought religious figure. This is not really a religious figure but a tree stump covered by a monk-styled cloak – hence the reference to a tailor in the title. This plate exposes the problems related to Religion in 18th century Spain. Firstly, it comments on such issues as “monks who fake miracles.”[14] Again, the honour of the church is being called into question. With the Church’s power and influence, they control these followers’ actions and eliminate any questioning of religious worship icons.. The plate shows the blind faith that can stop followers from questioning their religious leaders. The woman in the foreground, who worships with eyes wide open but cannot tell the difference between a religious leader and a cloaked tree, shows this. Her ability to think critically seems to have been completely corrupted by her faith in the Church. This woman is unable to see beneath the clothing to “the true, arboreal identity of the object of her reverence.”[15]

What a Tailor Can Do! also discusses the problem of superstition and its destructive potential. Goya realized the need to call attention to the abundance of superstition in Spain at this time, and how it correlated with common ignorance. The plate shows that the negative effects of superstition are amplified in large groups, such as an ignorant mob, and can cause certain types of hysteria like frantically praying to a cloaked stump. This piece helps to emphasize the role of costume in contemporary religious practices by pointing out how a tailor’s work can designate someone as a religious figure, even if they are not. The tailor can present “the stupidity of those who judge things by their appearance.”[16] This crowd is quick to accept the cloaked stump without closer inspection because they have been conditioned to perceive the cloak as religiously significant. What a Tailor Can Do! depicts another deadly sin, that of sloth. These supposed disciples of God are lazily praising Him, and they do not bother to notice their mistake; they are worshipping a stump wrapped in a cloak. Their unwillingness to question or take care of their religious practice exposes their fraud.

There is, however, a frightened child who does not display the same reverence and piety as the others in What a Tailor can Do!, She seems to suspect that the cloaked log is not a religious figure, while those around her are oblivious to it. In the eighteenth century, there was a common belief in miracles and therefore an attempt by some to profit from the hopeful. This plate thus “[criticizes]… priests and monks who created false miracles in order to dupe the pious and to profit from them,[17] while also commenting on the willingness of followers to place belief in anything that even remotely resembled a religious figure. This once again represents the greed of clergymen, and the sloth of those who accept these false miracles. While the cloaked log is not a miracle in itself, it represents how easily parishioners would follow and believe what was presented to them. This could then be taken advantage of to the benefit of the Church.

The one person that cannot be convinced of this holy experience is the innocent child. She has yet to be corrupted by sin and other elements of the world that would tarnish her proper judgment, unlike the kneeling woman whose “cognitive faculties have been rendered inoperative by religious ecstasy- or superstition.”[18]Goya’s commentary on the ignorant lay followers’ willingness to believe is emphasized by the juxtaposition of the child and the kneeling woman. The child presents a chance to break away from such rampant belief in a corrupt system. The terror on the child’s face shows her unwillingness to worship this false religious symbol, but as a young child she cannot correct the erroneous behavior she is witnessing. Witches are seen hovering above, suggesting that witchcraft can summon the worship of the most pious of people. Perhaps this plate proposes that mass religion was just a form of mainstream witchcraft.

Through this small look at some of the plates from Goya’s print series, the powerful and scathing parody is shown. The series skillfully and cleverly comments on the actions, conduct and status of the Church in Spanish eighteenth century society. These representations, though they vary thematically, all depict how the Church was not immune from sins of green, gluttony, lust or sloth. This strategy offers a new look at religion, and gives new ideas to ponder, especially that of the purity and holiness of those entering the church. It also addresses the worn out traditions within the society of the late eighteenth century and the congregation’s  inability to question what is being offered to them. By illustrating the Church’s sins of greed, prostitution and false worship, its merits are called into question. Goya attempts to force the blind followers of this corrupt institution to open their eyes and clearly see what they have been worshipping. The purpose of Goya’s images was to expose the corruption which had taken over the Christian Church, and attempt to fight against it. This, in turn, places some of the blame on the viewer for having allowed such corruption to happen by ignoring its existence. By employing satire in his Los Caprichos series, Goya sparkes a cultural self reflection for the Spanish people and demands that the Church be judged for its own sins and failures.


All images from Francisco Goya’s “Los Caprichos” 1799, aquatint, and acquired under the Creative Commons license.


Sayre, Eleanor A. The Changing Image: Prints by Francisco Goya. Museum of Fine Arts of

Boston, Boston, MA. 1974.

Schulz, Andrew. Satirizing the Senses: The Representation of Perception in Goya’s Los

Caprichos. “Art History” 23.2 (June 2000): 153-181.

Wolf, Reva. Goya and the Satirical Print in England and on the Continent, 1730 to 1850. David

R. Godine, Publisher. Boston College Museum of Art. Boston, MA., 1991.


[1] Sayre, Eleanor A. The Changing Image: Prints by Francisco Goya. Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, Boston, MA. 1974. P. 56.

[2] Wolf , Reva. Goya and the Satirical Print in England and on the Continent, 1730 to 1850. David R. Godine, Publisher. Boston College Museum of Art. Boston, MA., 1991. P. 15

[3]  Schulz, Andrew. Satirizing the Senses: The Representation of Perception in Goya’s Los Caprichos. “Art History” 23.2 (June 2000): 153-181. P. 169

[4] Sayre, 1974. P. 55

[5] Wolf, 1991. P. 39.

[6] Sayre, 1974. P.76.

[7] Schulz, 2000. P. 137.

[8] Wolf, 1991. P. 80.

[9] Ibid, p 80.,

[10] Ibid, p. 80.

[11] Wolf, 1991. P. 86.

[12] Ibid. p. 79.

[13] Sayre, 1974. P. 79.

[14] Ibid, p. 56.

[15] Schulz, 2000. P. 134.

[16] Ibid,  p. 134.

[17] Sayre, 1974. P.107.

[18] Wolf, 2000. P. 134.