The Horror is Real

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

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Goya had a serious (but unknown) illness in the 1790s that left him deaf and withdrawn, he continued to paint for the Spanish court but also began a huge body of experimental, often grotesque, work that was kept largely private.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

There are two possible readings of Goya’s dark paintings: literal and ironic. The literal interpretation is that Goya, aware of the stories of moral and social breakdown across Spain, was portraying the (potentially real) horrors of satanism and witchcraft as a kind of 18th century horror for his rich patrons, as titillating for them as horror movies are to us.

This literal reading seems more plausible when you consider Witches’ Sabbath, painted in the same year as Witches in Flight and also sold to the Duchess of Osana. Witches Sabbath is a more straightforward image of typical crone-like witches, murdering infant children to please their goat-formed master.

Witches’ Sabbath (1798) is certainly a more titillating, schlock-horror depiction of witches that represents people’s fears and morbid fascination.

The ironic reading of the “dark paintings” is that Goya wasn’t attacking witchcraft, but rather the opposite: he was attacking the organised religious authorities that mutually buttressed the ruling classes.

We now know that intermittently, from the Inquisition onward, the Spanish authorities exploited hear-say and hysteria among the lower orders of society around the practices of witchcraft (most notably during the Basque Witch Trials, which implicated thousands). Maintaining a fear of the occult guarantees its opposite: hope in the power of the church and faith in God. Scaremongering allows the condemnation of scapegoats.

Even more liberal interpretations of Goya’s dark paintings go as far as suggesting that his depictions of witchcraft are satires of priestcraft, that the witches are ciphers for priests who prey on people’s superstitions and fears.

Intermittently, Goya built up a body of etchings, called the Los caprichos, that were both fantastical and satirical. The subject matter of these, he wrote, were:

“The innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilized society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual”

While the meaning of Witches in Flight is a matter of speculation, most art historians are inclined to buy into the ironic reading. They are inclined to do so not just because of circumstantial evidence — we know Goya was a liberal, for example — but more importantly because of the way the painting was produced: its composition and formal (i.e. colour, light, shade, texture, construction, brushwork etc.) elements. “Form” and content, you see, are not mutually oblivious.

The various elements surrounding the central action suggests that this picture is allegorical. The sparse backdrop gives the picture a timelessness; the sky is pure blackness, there is no register of air: no clouds of any kind, no horizon, no tree canopies to imply atmospheric movement. Only the clothing of the men holds the implied movement of their sudden ascent. The picture has space without atmosphere or environment.

Only an arid ground serves as a stage here for these four principal elements that are not necessarily connected. The man escaping is blinded while warding away evil that he couldn’t possibly see, the other man cover his ears — to muffle the screams? — But he too cannot see what is taking place.

Spain Torn Apart

Spain’s history had been tumultuous during Goya’s career. The French revolution was a political and social earthquake that shattered Europe for decades. Due to the external pressures of revolution in the colonies and in Europe, the reign of Goya’s royal patron, Charles IV, was disastrous.

A decade after the Witches in Flight was painted, Spain was torn apart. Napoleon, although allied to the Spanish Bourbons against the British and the Portuguese before 1808, suddenly turned on the Spanish in order to maintain the Continental System (an economic blockade of the United Kingdom) after the Spanish defeat to the British Navy at Trafalgar.

After rioting in Madrid, Charles IV of Spain had abdicated due to his weakness towards the French, who were by then massing troops in the Iberian Peninsula. His more popular son Ferdinand VII, who was more in favor of alliance with the British, was swiftly deposed by the French and replaced by Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte who governed as Joseph I of Spain with a French occupation force.

Chaos ensued. What is now known in the English-speaking world as the Peninsula War (1808–1814) proceeded from that point. The Spanish immediately revolted against French rule and the uprising became a complex proxy war in the greater continental struggle between the British and the French. It was a bloody and terrible war; the first war from which we got the term “Guerrilla warfare”, because of the resistance ordinary Spanish citizens put up against the French occupiers. Patrolling French soldiers were captured, tortured, murdered and mutilated; the French took retribution against civilians and so the cycle of violence spiraled.

“Great deeds, on the Dead.” Goya’s Disasters of War Etchings, made during the Peninsula War and never published in his lifetime, show the horrific violence of the conflict.

It was in the midst of this brutal war that the 1812 Constitution emerged, drawn up by the newly formed (and liberal) Spanish government while under siege by the French at Cádiz. It’s difficult to convey just how radical and forward-thinking the Constitution was because it decreed so much that is now normalised: free trade, free press, the abolition of feudalism, the autonomy of the citizen and universal male suffrage.

Goya painted the Allegory of the 1812 Constitution not long after it was signed. This painting has formal similarities with Witches in Flight, but where the latter was about darkness and evil, the former is a depiction of goodness and light.

Goya very soon painted the Allegory of the 1812 Constitution to celebrate the event. This painting shares the same ageless characteristics as Witches in Flight. But where the latter was an allegory of ignorance and terror in the darkness of night, the former is an allegory of progress and enlightenment in the light of day.

But the liberal constitution had its enemies. In the aftermath of the French retreat from the Iberian peninsula, Ferdinand VII returned to take the throne but almost immediately threw out the 1812 Constitution. Intellectuals, journalists, artists and scientists were persecuted as Spanish conservatives, the church and the absolutists snatched power back in the vacuum that Joseph Napoleon left.

Ferdinand VII painted by Goya in 1812. Ferdinand VII was initially favoured over his father Charles IV, and certainly over Joseph Bonaparte, but he proved to be a disaster for Spain. The king was deeply conservative and believed in the rule of absolute monarchy. His rule culminated in the “Ominous Decade” in which the Spanish economy and Empire crumbled. The nation fell into civil war upon his death. Goya painted Ferdinand but the two did not get on. The great artist never painted Ferdinand for the court itself.

The Black Paintings

It is against this backdrop that a now sick and old-aged Goya painted his “Black Paintings”, all of which were painted on the wall of his house —nicknamed “The House of the Deaf Man” — for his own satisfaction.

Some, including Saturn Devouring his Son (1820–23), and A Fight to the Death (1820–23), are highly allegorical or reflective, just like Witches in Flight, with a sparse, timeless setting. They are read as a commentary not only on the ageing Goya’s mental state but also on the fate of the Spanish nation, a nation from which he eventually exiled himself.

The Great He-Goat

Included among them is a return to the theme of witches and satanism, a painting labelled The Great He-Goat (1820–23). Here witches sit in the presence of the devil, yet again in the form of a goat.

These distorted faces betray the horrific vision before them while an isolated and veiled woman to the right of the group, possibly an initiate, sits still and observes. The witches may well be hallucinating (various potions and brews were supposedly drunk during these ceremonies) but it is our view of them that is hallucinatory. The devil is clearly defined in silhouette while the coven of witches are distorted, they are, in other words, a synthesis of the manifestation of their inner state with the outward appearance.

For us, there’s something dreadful not in the appearance of the goat, but rather the people massed before him. The witches appear to be less than human, abjectly obedient and drunk on superstition.

In the context of the Black Paintings, The Great He-Goat is seen as a horrific satire of the slide into superstition of Spanish spiritual life. It’s telling that on the wall directly opposite The Great He-Goat, and in the same (unusual) dimensions, Goya painted A Pilgrimage to San Isidro.

In this mournful painting, a procession of pilgrims making their way to San Isidro’s Hermitage of Madrid are no better treated in paint than the witches huddled before the goat-form devil. The front pack of people are distorted and seemingly singing a hymn. As the procession recedes, the pack of worshipers merge with the rocky landscape.

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro painted along with the other Black Paintings in Goya’s house in the early 1820s. Historians believe it was situated opposite The Great He-Goat.

On the far right of A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, observing the main body of pilgrims, is a more studied character. This man roughly occupies the same space as the veiled woman sat to the right in The Great He-Goat. Both these observers take in the horror before them from a removed position to the right of their paintings. There is more than a suggestion that Goya is drawing a parallel between these two scenes.

Compare this scene with The Meadow of San Isidro, the exact same view painted in 1788, ten years before Witches in Flight and just before the French Revolution caused so much mayhem in Europe.

The Meadow of San Isidro is more or less the same scene as The Pilgrimage to San Isidro painted three decades earlier in 1788. The scene is jovial, Madrid shines brilliantly as a backdrop to the gathering.

Could The Witches Flight be a precursor to Goya’s later ambivalence to church and state? Were the seeds of Goya’s private dissent already sown in 1798? No one knows for sure, but if we consider the way this picture was painted we see that Goya is shaping our understanding of his inner turmoil and its relationship to the catastrophes occurring outside his door. Goya mined the vein of this painting to its fullest as the nation around him sank into an abyss of ignorance and terror.

Above all else, we get the revaluation of values in Goya’s work: in a world turned upside down by civil strife and conflict, what is believed to be good can be just as bad as evil. Goya’s dark paintings are not just fantasies that are designed to titillate our taste for the occult and supernatural, they are grave warnings from history. Goya had more than one meaning in mind when he wrote the epigraph, “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store