Decapitation has always been present in our world. From the beginning of man and the first sharp tool, humans have been fascinated with the separation of the head from the body. The body is essential, thus the body has always held great importance (Regina IX). The body is the basis for symbolism because humans share and understand the importance of the body for life. Changing the body in any way has meaning. When the human head is separated from the body, the action is no longer just one of violence but means something more (Janes X). There is no such thing as natural decapitation; in nature decapitation is accidental. The head cannot naturally separate from the body unless a deliberate act is done for a greater purpose (Janes 2). The desire to decapitate a body affirms the need of someone to obtain the “power” that is symbolic between the body and head.
The head as a symbol can be used in many different ways. It has two primary earnings, one religious and the other political. The head taken for political gain, as a trophy of war, is presented to people either as a symbol of political struggle or a symbol of public execution (Janes 14). The latter trophy head, or head taken for presentation, faded out with the formation of city-states, but the power decapitations represented then is still relevant. Heads taken for political gain have come to show that justice has been served: the sovereign’s law has been enforced but the sovereign is no longer pulling the cord of the guillotine only placed his head over the basket. What does it mean when the king is decapitated? How is the king’s head different than that of the common people? Since the Middle Ages the king has been seen to have two separate bodies: the natural body, which he is born, and the political body which he inherits. Both represent different forms of his status (Kantorowicz 3-6).
The king is seen as the center of law, corporation sole, and the body of the king as the state itself. Through the king, his heirs, and their successors, the law is carried and survives forever; thus the king’s body never dies. The mortal body exists only as a pedestal for the other, carrying out duties set by the political (Kantorowicz 20-23). When these two halves no longer agree or contradict one another, the mortal body is destroyed to allow the political body to carry on. The head of the king is the seat of the power of the kingdom. To take a king’s head is to separate the mortal body from the political body, which defines mortality and the legacy of his law.
One of the most famous executions of a king is that of King Louis XVI. The events that led up to and took place after his death separate his execution from other beheadings. The head of Louis XVI symbolized more than just the transfer of power but represented the change of power from an old regime to a new type of political body. This idea profoundly impacted Goya.