The Prado’s Best History Painting: Queen Joanna the [S]ad by Francisco Padilla
Of all the epically large history paintings in the Prado, I think Francisco Padilla’s Queen Joanna the Mad is my favorite. Yes, this sort of painting has been done before countless times but this is a good and pleasing example — an exemplar of the history genre. It should be noted that one thing which separates this painting from most funerary scenes is that the coffin (and its denizen) do not share the focal space with the protagonist. Joanna stands alone. It is her painting. The mad queen so castigated by history is the hero of this painting.
Circularly staged composition gives us a clear sense of depth and scale. It is at once intimate: with Joanna and her court gathered around the coffin on the right flank before a humble church, and of a massive scale: involving countless others on the left spooling out like a migratory herd into a barren, expansive plain. The composition puts Joanna at the head of both flanks, the single sympathetic link connecting a public with a private pain.
Around Joanna, ladies in waiting and servants are swathed in warm cloaks, huddling close together— it is not just gray, but terribly cold. They seem uncomfortable and bored, but deferent. Two men, one old and one young, stand to the side and take the role of disinterested viewer. They are watching something terrible and, while sympathetic, are merely powerless observers. The faces of annoyance, pity, and disinterest isolate Joanna. Of all the men and woman in attendance, it is only she who mourns over the casket and only she who cannot be moved or touched by the cold, by the smoke, by the press of the bodies behind her.
Likewise, her retinue on the left flank are removed from the grieving. There is a performance of traditional mourning, pall-bearers, a gilt casket with family crest, but the distance between the attendees and the deceased is measured in more than just yards. Joanna and they do not share the same grief. On the one hand is a public performative grief reasserting the symbolic power of the crown as the personification of the state, and on the other a young widow faced with years of turmoil alone. For both, public grief is a patriotic duty, but only for Joanna does it transcend into the personal sphere, locking her out of the intimacy of grieving.
The barren landscape and freezing conditions might indicate something of the madness attributed to Joanna. Because she is so enrapt in the death of her husband, the worries of her attendants and retinue become immaterial. She is dragging them along on a personal journey of grief. The sacrifice she asks of them is great and works only to distance them more from the meaning of the procession.
All of these aforementioned details work in tandem to underscore the loneliness of Joanna’s mourning. What would you do if you were queen and you were duty-bound to public rites for your dead spouse? Joanna is expressing a private grief publicly and in doing so imposes herself upon those who knew the king firstly as a ruler and her firstly as successor.
One of the most important details in the painting is the smoke flowing out behind Joanna — it emblemizes the important marriage between the literary and the aesthetic in visual art. The smoke cuts the composition, making the focal more dynamic (an x instead of an I). Its contrasting obliqueness draws the eye to the heroine. Joanna is isolated by the plume, remote from the church, her retinue, the gray skies, the cold weather — a single attendant’s face barely shows through the heavy swirls of paint. What is a cold, damp day for everyone around her, is just as such a searing and passionate one for Joanna.
What of her face? Is it still one of madness? Or, does it read more of despair, or fear? Certainly one can read many emotions, but presiding over all is the glassy eyed look of someone whose mind has egressed the physical location of her body. She, unlike the others, is past the physical. Her arms fall at her sides, her shoulders hunch, her hair flaps in the wind outstripping its mourner’s hood. Surely she cannot be both a ruler and a human being.
Padilla does an incredible job of painting a sympathetic and nuanced portrait of Joanna’s grief. There is much more to examine in the painting and I didn’t even touch on much of the technical detail that popularized this style of painting back in the day (when things were cool). So let’s get down to brass tax: is it Red as Georgia clay or nay?