The Witches’ Sabbath

It is a lowering, disturbing sight – a vision that strides the jagged edge between art and illness.  Its cloven hooves balance on a precipice as it looks downward into a pit where reality and madness, swirling like cats, battle for superiority.  Casualties – science, reason, ignorance, insanity: every faculty of the human mind – lie discarded and untended on the killing fields.  Only fear remains:  the robust hunter that seeks the mind of both everyman and madman.

A sick crescent moon huddles in the corner.  It sinks into a twilight that melts into a horizon rippling with lavender and sapphire.  Alone and betrayed, the lunar refugee rides the blue columns of an empty, ominous sky, illuminating the inverted ceremony below.


This is Goya’s black dream:  a hallucination of bats dripping from the dusky hem of night…of barren, predatory hills that crouch like animals.   This is his heroic portrait of a masculine goat sitting amongst his witches, culled from the bare-foot peasantry of Spain.  His stunning horns, curled like a lyre are at the center of his vision, draw the eye to the eerie threat, the subdued terror, of the devil assuming an earthly creature’s shape.

The unwashed coven is hypnotized by the sight before them.  Their superstitions have knitted their ragged bodies together; their beliefs have brought to life the musty goat that gestures towards them, regal and dark.  The women offer him their children – but whether for sacrifice or for nourishment is unclear.   With expressions that are sloppy and unformed, they are united in a nightmare performed on an empty plain beneath a feverish, unsettled sky.

“The Witches’ Sabbath” is one of Goya’s ‘black paintings’:  canvases that begin with a layer of black, his “sleep of reason that produces monsters”.  Objects and ideas hide in these frightening works, their eyes glowing in the dark:  optic denizens that keep their logic confined and private.  Sometimes they venture into the light:  terrible thoughts round with illumination, standing alone in the middle of a sick drama.  Like disappointing births, these paintings achieve their twisted life out of darkness.

At first glance, the work resembles one of the silken garden parties of Watteau or Fragonard.  But instead of graceful couples with nothing but pastel secrets and delicate longings to occupy them, there is a circle of witches that lie in the dirt, their howls freezing the sky into a shuddering twilight.  There are no diamante trees, spangled with tears and sunlight.  The landscape instead is barren:  Nature’s sigh of hopelessness shrouding the charcoal-colored earth. Only the demon remains, smelling of sulphur and the barnyard, its horns swathed in vines of belladonna and nightshade. 

There is no Venus or even a benevolent Bacchus to watch over a prancing, flirtatious world.   There is no glossy, pretty life here.  And there is no god at all


5 responses to “The Witches’ Sabbath

  1. Wicked!

    Great post, as always!

  2. Facinating. He seems to have taken every dark aspect of several religions and spiritualities and combined them into one terror-filled painting. Great descriptions, very dark. Happy, well, Samhain, I guess. LOL!

    (I prefer to contact my farming ancestors this time of year rather than sacrificing the neighbor’s dog).

    • This painting always frightened me – so realistic, but so hard to explain at the same time. And that crescent moon…it seems to spook me the most, situated as if it were sailing away in horror at the vision it sees below.

      Yet, oddly, Goya used this painting as a metaphor, a symbol of the stupidity and ignorance of the world he lived in: the Inquisition was still in force, science was thought to be in the palm of the devil…there was much to anger a painter dedicated to the brutal facts!

  3. a magnificent description of Goya’s painting ; you use words lusciously and lustrously; I’m so glad I came upon your blog — can’t remember how ; I leave this invigorated

    btw I see you are very disciplined in your posts; they seem to go up at the rate of one per week; I look forward to the next one

  4. Your description has brought me endlessly deeper into a painting that I thought I was already quite familiar with.

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