The Horror is Real

Goya’s supernatural works hide terrible truths about Spanish history.

Steven Gambardella
9 min readSep 15, 2018


Francisco Goya, Witches in Flight, 1797–98

It’s the stuff of nightmares. Partially naked witches wearing coned hats levitate in the night sky clutching a naked man struggling against them. They appear to be biting him.

Immediately below them a man with his head covered in a blanket stumbles forward blindly with his arms out, he holds his thumbs in his clenched fingers in a gesture of figo — the warding away of evil.

From the darkness to the right, a donkey stares forward uncomprehendingly and unfazed while on the left another man lies face down seemingly clutching his ears in terror.

It’s a mysterious painting, and little is known of what Goya intended of the darker images he painted later in his career. We do know that Goya grew weary of the Spanish establishment from the late eighteenth century as his art became darker.

Goya had a serious (but unknown) illness in the 1790s that left him deaf and withdrawn, he continued to paint for the Spanish court but also began a huge body of experimental, often grotesque, work that was kept largely private.

Witches in Flight was actually sold to Goya’s liberal patrons, the Duke and Duchess of Osuna on 27 June 1798 along with a number of other paintings that took witchcraft and superstition as their subject matter.

Art history is dominated by religious art: depictions of christ, of God, of the angels and saints. No other canonised artist portrayed witches, acts of mortal sin and evil, and the devil himself as much as Goya did.

I will call this body of work “dark paintings”, in that they incorporate, but are not limited to, the infamous suite of “Black Paintings” discovered on the walls of Goya’s home and now housed in the Prado in Madrid (more about them later).

As Goya’s career faltered, his privately expressed liberal and rationalist views increasingly alienated him from the Spanish establishment, culminating in his self-imposed exile to France from 1824. He left behind a number of extraordinarily morbid depictions of Spanish life.

The Meaning of Goya’s Horror



Steven Gambardella

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