The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ is a notable piece of the Francisco Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’ series. Originally created as a fresco in the artist’s villa outside Madrid, the dark and gloomy painting depict a gathering of witches and warlocks.
The painting uses earth tones to create a nocturnal scene. Night and the absence of light are common images found in Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’. The series also often feature off-centre and unbalance images, here represented by an off-centre depiction of the Devil.
The Devil in the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ is illustrated in black as a goat standing ominously among is the gathered coven. The witches and warlocks each have ghastly features and frightening expressions.
Among the crowd is a lone girl dressed in black that seems to be resisting the Devil and the coven’s ritual. Like other pieces in the ‘Black Paintings’, the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ evokes nightmarish and pessimistic feelings. The pieces’ visual aspects and their impact on modern art are often seen as a precursor to expressionism.
The ‘Black Paintings’, or Pinturas Negras’, were a series of fourteen fresco painted by Goya during the artist’s later years. There were likely created between 1819 and 1823. The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ and the other works of the ‘Black Paintings’ were added to walls in dining and sitting rooms of the Quinta del Sordo (Deaf Man’s Villa). Named for its previous owner who was deaf, Goya also suffered from hearing loss when he moved to the villa in 1819. His hearing loss was caused by an unknown illness when he was 46, leaving him almost completely deaf. The mural were removed from the property in 1874 and transferred onto canvas. They are now found in the Museo del Prado’s collection in Madrid.
The intense and haunting paintings of the ‘Black Paintings’ including the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ reflect distressing themes and Goya’s personal view of humanity. They reflect the artists fear of insanity and relapse after suffering two brushes with serious illnesses, one of which left him deaf. The paintings also show Goya’s bleak view of humanity, which was heavily influenced by conflict during the early nineteenth century. It was during this time that Goya experienced the hysteria and fear of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and the Napoleonic Wars. There was also major social and political change in Spain, and many pieces in the ‘Black Paintings’ reflect conflict that reflect the real-life battle between left and right forces.
The ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ in the ‘Black Paintings’ series follows a piece by the same name created by Goya in 1798. The oil on canvas shows the devil again in the form of a goat. He is surrounded by a coven of witches, each disfigured. The mix of young and old witches are sitting in a barren and darkened landscape that is only lit by moonlight. More colourful than the version found in the ‘Black Paintings’ series, the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ from 1789 shows invested symbols often used in witchcraft. For example, the quarter moon faces out and the goat extends his left rather than right hoof. Goya used witchcraft in these and other paintings to protest values of the Spanish Inquisition, which included witch trails. The paintings also attack superstition that dominated rural parts of Spain during the time, including beliefs of midnight gatherings of witches and apparitions of the devil.
One of Spain’s most influential artists, Francisco Goya was a leading Spanish painter and printmaker during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Born in 1746 in the village of Fuendetodos, Goya began his formal study of art when he was 14. After losing much of his hearing in 1793, Goya’s work began to embrace bleaker and darker themes. The various political and social conflicts facing in Spain during the early nineteenth century were reflected in various works, including ‘Disasters of War’ and ‘Black Paintings’. Both series were critiques on conflict and war. Disillusioned with life in Spain, Goya moved to Bordeaux. In 1824 where he continued to paint and create prints. Francisco Goya died in 1828 at the age of 82.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.