Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), painter and printmaker, excelled in creating art for noble clients in Spain. He survived a number of regime changes, religious and political upheavals, and personal tragedies. Spain still engaged in witch-hunts, initially intended to root our religious heretics, but extended to political dissenters. Goya read the commentaries from the mass witch trials in the Basque territory in 1610: 7,000 cases were examined by the Inquisition with 2,000 confessions, of which 1,384 were from children.
Goya was commissioned to create six paintings on witchcraft by the Duke and Duchess of Osuna (1798) to decorate their villa La Alameda. The “Witches Sabbath” (1798-1799) (17’”x12”) depicts a gathering of witches presided over by their leader, traditionally a goat. Goya’s goat dominates the painting. His extremely long horns are decorated with a green leafy garland, his eyes are red, and his grin is devious. The most telling aspect of this image is its human posture, upright with hooved front legs outstretched as if they were arms.
The coven of witches, seated on the ground around him, has brought him offerings of children. At the left, a witch holds a stick from which three dead babies dangle. Next to the witch in white is the skeleton of a child. The witch in gold, back to the viewer, leans on a pair of child’s legs that appear to be kicking. At the right, an old witch holds up the skeletal body of a child, still alive but not by much. The last witch at the right holds up a live baby. What will happen to this baby? According to the belief at the time, the baby will be killed and its body turned into a paste to make a flying ointment. More witches and a distant landscape form the background. Over all is a darkening sky with a glowing white crescent moon.
In Goya’s “The Spell” (1797-1998) (17”x12”), five witches threaten a cowering man with curses. The witches are old crones, one in a yellow robe, the others wear black. The yellow robe is an interesting choice. Generally, yellow is thought to represent positive attributes such as sunshine, optimism, and happiness. However, the color yellow also can be associated with cowardice, jaundice, malaria, pestilence, and it is the color of urine. The yellow witch is about to lay hands on the quivering man.
The four witches dressed in black share in casting the spells. The witch at the left delivers an incantation. The next witch, bats perched on the peaks of her hat, sticks a needle into a doll. The third witch holds a candle and reads from a book. The fourth witch holds a basket of dead babies; an owl sits on her bald head. Another witch, above the others, flies with a group of owls, their yellow eyes aglow. A symbol of wisdom and learning, the owl is also a creature of the night. A crescent moon shines dimly.
In “The Witches Flight” (1797) (17”x12”), set in total darkness, the three witches, who could be males, rise in the air, carrying the nude body of a screaming man. The practice of witchcraft was not limited to women. The three witches bite the man, to eat his flesh or suck his blood. Uniquely, Goya has put coroza (peaked caps) on the heads of the witches. The Inquisition required those accused and found guilty heresy to wear coroza. Each coroza was painted with an emblem of the sin. These coroza are painted with flames, the emblem of unrepentant heretics condemned to burn alive at the stake.
Below the witches are two peasant figures, one with his hands over his ears, trying not to hear the tortured screams of the victim. The other covers his head with a blanket and tries to run away. He holds his fists in a gesture used to ward off the evil eye. A donkey wanders in from the darkness at the lower right. Perhaps he belongs to one of the two men. As a symbol the donkey may represent ignorance, suffering, stubbornness, and service. It is thought to have a keen sense of curiosity. Donkeys are easily startled; this one will certainly be startled if he gets any closer to this horrifying event.
Goya suffered from syphilis (1792-93), a mysterious illness at the time. The disease almost killed him, and it left him deaf. He feared the illness would return. Frequently depressed, he questioned his faith, and he was critical of the Church that was responsible for the Inquisition. His worry extended to the unstable and oppressive government. The coroza is similar to a bishop’s mitre with its double pointed top. Many art historians believe Goya’s works did not condemn witchcraft, but the priests who preyed upon people’s fears.
“The Bewitched Man” or “The Devils Lamp” (1798) (17’’ x 12’’) is based on the play The Man Bewitched by Force (1698) by Antonio de Zamora. The protagonist Don Claudio, a priest, believed that he was bewitched and must keep a lamp burning or die. In the painting, the black-robed priest desperately pours oil into a lamp held by a demonic goat. Again, the goat stands upright like a human and makes a low, obsequious bow to Don Claudio. The light from the small lamp appears to light the right side of the scene as a herd of rearing donkeys loom over Don Claudio. The first letters of two words, LAM DESCO, appear in the lower right. They begin the Spanish words lampara descomunal (monstrous lamp).
Unlike the other four paintings for the Osuna’s, the fifth, “The Witches Kitchen” (1797-98) (17” x12”), is executed in grisaille (shades of gray). Witches are concocting a brew. On the floor are a bowl, two human skulls, and a flacon. A witch pours a steaming liquid from a pitcher into the bowl. A lamp, two animal skulls, and a group of items, possibly herbs, hang from the fireplace. The witch standing to the left appears to be part human and part animal, with a tail, paws, and a dog-like face. Standing behind is a figure with a skeletal face and a large gaping animal-like jaw with sharp teeth. The rear end of a goat can be seen on a broomstick, flying up the fireplace chimney.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.