The Horror is Real

Goya’s supernatural works hint at some terrible truths of Spanish history.

Steven Gambardella
9 min readSep 15, 2018
Francisco Goya, Witches in Flight, 1797–98

It’s the stuff of nightmares — witches in coned hats levitate in the darkness of night, they clutch a naked man struggling against them. They seem to bite into his flesh. He throws his head back in distress, his eye sockets are shadowed.

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, while on the left another man cowers face down clutching his ears.

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 just as dark subjects emerged in his art.

Goya had a serious but unknown illness in the 1790s that left him deaf and withdrawn.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…