Art Spotlight: The Witches of Francisco Goya

The Great He-Goat, click for full size. DeAgostini/Getty Images

As we're sharing our witchcraft episodes "What's in a witch's brew?" and "Hammer of the Witches," I thought we might stop to consider the exploration of witchcraft in the paintings of Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya (1746 - 1828).

At the top of the page you see Goya's masterful mural Witches' Sabbath or The Great He-Goat, painted directly on the wall of the painter's house between 1821 and 1823. As with his other so-called "black paintings," which includes Saturn Devouring His Son, the mural was never intended for public consumption. Rather, he painted them towards the end of his life in a time of physical and mental decline. He had withdrawn from public life out of disgust for Spain's political and social trajectory. His work during this time orbited around mysteries of violence, darkness and death.

Witches Flight.
Wikimedia Commons

And so there we see witches gathered around a bestial Satan, a common motif of witchcraft theory and persecution in the preceding centuries -- a time of darkness that Goya saw reflected in the modern world.

Witches appear in several of Goya's works, reflecting both a fascination with supernatural themes and a hatred of superstitious thinking and the violence such minds inflict on the world. His 1798 painting Witches' Flight illustrates this nicely, with episcopal witches bearing a victim on high above a superstitious bystander and the donkey of ignorance.

Below we see two more paintings, Witches Sabbath (1798) and The Execution of a Witch (1824):

Witches Sabbath.
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty
The Execution of a Witch.
DeAgostini/Getty Images

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.