Dionisio Fierros (1827-1894) was a Spanish Romantic painter who painted a “Vanitas”, an allegorical still life, for the Marquis of San Adrián of Navarre in 1849. 

It was not a very robust work of art, especially in an era of great romanticism and drama. 

It was a traditional "vanitas" with a skull, which was the most common symbol of the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death. It was a human skull, depicted in a three-quarter view, and it had no jaw. It rested on a green carpet. The skull had many dental defects. The colour used was a roasted yellow. 

It would have been a rather boring 44 x 37 cm oil painting on canvas if it had not had three words written in sepia ink on the back of the wooden frame: "Skull of Goya".

Report by Karla Ingleton Darocas ( (c)


Don Francisco de Goya decided to leave Spain in 1824, partly because of his dislike of the Bourbon doctrine and the total sovereignty of Fernando VII, and partly because of his poor health. He was 78 years old and completely deaf.

In August, Goya travelled to Paris to visit the Royal Museum of the Louvre, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Gobelins manufactory, the Savonnerie carpet factory and the mosaics.

The Louvre contained more than 1200 paintings, divided into three groups: French School, Flemish, Dutch and German School and Italian School. The Italian Room also contained the "Spanish School". There he found the portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa by Velázquez, a Purísima and five other paintings by Murillo, as well as the Adoration of the Shepherds by Ribera.

He later settled in Bordeaux with Leocadia Zorrilla, his housekeeper since 1812, when he was widowed by Josefa Bayeu. Leocadia came with her two children Guillermo and Rosario. Leocadia was 36 years old, and her children were 14 and 9 years old respectively. Rosario was considered Goya's god-daughter, and he guided her to an artistic career.

Bordeaux at this time was crowded with Spaniards living in exile and holding various positions, such as aristocrats, military men and businessmen. Here he met his old friend and brother-in-law Martin Miguel de Goicoechea. Goicoechea was a wealthy businessman in the cloth industry.

They were in-laws in 1805 when Goicoechea's daughter Gumersinda de Goicoechea married Javier de Goya, Francisco's son. It was then that the two gentlemen became great partners.

As a wedding gift, one of many, Goya painted his son and future daughter-in-law in standing portraits. On neutral backgrounds, he portrays them in their latest light-filled fashion, characterised by a symphony of grey and white tones. The little dog could be real or a romantic prop to show their enlightened and educated attitude.


Goya continued to work in Bordeaux until his death at the age of 82 on 16 April 1828. Because Leocadia Zorrilla was a political liberal living with a widow out of wedlock, the Catholic Church had very strict rules about giving the artist last rites. And the records testify that Goya did not in fact receive them.

He was buried in the cemetery of La Chartreuse. He was buried in the same crypt as his friend Martin Miguel de Goicoechea, who had died three years earlier.

In 1888, the Spanish consul in Bordeaux, Joaquín Pereyra, wrote to Maria Christina Henrietta Désirée Félicité Rénière, Queen of Spain and second wife of the late King Alfonso XII, that the Spanish authorities really should transfer Goya's mortal remains.

Thus, in 1888, the exhumation of both Goya and Goicoechea took place in the presence of the Chief of Police of the Judicial Delegations, the Inspector of the Cemeteries, the Director of the Funeral Institutes, the Spanish Consul Pereyra and Goya's friend, the French artist Gustave Labat.

Labat recounts: "We found ourselves in front of two boxes without panels and opened both. In the box furthest from the entrance were the bones of a person. In the other box were all the bones of another body, except for the head."

The Spanish consul Pereyra wrote at the time that the headless skeleton was undoubtedly Goya, as he was wearing the cloak and rosary with which he had been buried.


Needless to say, the imagination ran wild and speculation about the whereabouts of Goya's head did the rounds.

Naturally, the artist's grandson, Dionisio Fierros, was questioned. The investigators wanted to know how Goya's skull could have been painted in 1849 if it was only discovered missing in 1888 - 39 years difference?

Reports emerged that the painter Fierros had a skull in his studio that he never let out of his sight. A skull that was later inherited by his son Nicolás, who took it with him to Salamanca when he began his medical studies. Unfortunately, this skull was destroyed during an experiment.


Madrid filmmaker Samuel Alarcón reports in his documentary, which aims to revive the mystery of the missing Goya skull, that according to D. Héctor Vallés Varela of the Royal Medical Academy of Zaragoza, the theory that Goya's head could have been secretly separated from his body in the cemetery is impossible.

Vallés notes: "It's not easy to separate a head from a corpse, because there are bones, muscles and tendons and blood, a lot of blood."

Vallés substantiated his theory by conducting a craniometric study according to the principles of forensic anatomy. Vallés compared the proportions of the skull in Fierro's painting with the very last portrait by Goya, painted in 1826 by the Valencian artist Vicente López Portaña.

He concluded that the study of the skull matched the portrait.


There is no conclusion! The unsolved mystery of Goya's missing skull continues.

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