Francisco Goya (1746-1828) is considered to be one of the most important Spanish artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries. Born the fourth of six siblings, at the age of 13 Goya began studying drawing at the Academy in Zaragoza under the direction of Jose Luzan. In his early career, Francisco Goya primarily painted for members of the nobility and royal commissions. As a skilled court painter, Goya produced tapestry cartoons for the bedroom of the prince and princess of Asturias at El Pardo, was appointed by a unanimous decision an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando, and received the prestigious honor of being appointed a Chamber Painter for the king.
However, in his later career, Goya turned away from the glittering world of the nobility, viewing it as both deeply flawed and hypocritical. In 1799, he published the darkly satirical print series Los Caprichos. This collection pointedly criticized contemporary Spanish society. By utilizing nightmarish images, including witches, ghosts, and demons, Goya’s work began to symbolically criticize the vices and errors of human nature. This work targeted issues surrounding class, marriage, gender and the corruption of the clergy and Inquisition.
The artist continued to criticize the Inquisition in his series of oil paintings commissioned for the Duchess of Osuna, which prominently featured disturbing images of both witches and demons. Though witch-hunts and executions had ceased in Spain by this time, Goya was in-part inspired by a recently republished account of the Basque County witch-hunts of 1609-1611. During this event, approximately 1,800 individuals confessed to witchcraft, many of whom were minors. Francisco Goya’s oil paintings depicted visions of grotesque gatherings of witches, showing these figures as they would have been envisioned during the early modern witch trials. These dark and frightening paintings depict witches worshiping the devil, eating children, and levitating in the air. This series of paintings was likely a criticism of the recently reinstated Inquisition and the perceived superstitious fanaticism it encouraged.
Authors Rainer Hagen and Rose-Marie Hagen describe Francisco Goya’s incorporation of witchcraft into his artwork in these vivid terms: “What seemed to have enraged [Goya] in particular was the fact that the Church encouraged superstition. Even as it persecuted and condemned witches and sorcerers, it thereby affirmed their existence. In Goya’s work, such figures belong- like the giant bats- to the realm of night-time apparitions”
After experiencing the bloodshed brought on by the Napoleonic wars, followed by the reestablishment of absolute monarchy and the Inquisition in Spain, the artist became entirely focused on producing dark and profoundly symbolic artwork. In 1819, Goya purchased a county house on the outskirts of Madrid. By this time, his wife had passed away, perishing in 1812 at the end of the war, and a severe illness had left him permanently deaf in one ear. It was in this residence that Francisco Goya produced what are known as his “Black Paintings.” These images continued to included dark, pessimistic, highly critical themes and imagery.
The artwork of Francisco Goya is just one example of the artistic utilization of witchcraft as a means of contemporary social criticism. In compositionally rich works such as A Witches Sabbath, we can see both the lingering perception of seventeenth-century witchcraft, as well as how witches began to be reinterpreted as a lasting reminder of the dangers of superstitious extremism in an age of enlightened thought.
Suggested further reading:
Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos- https://books.google.com/books?id=OSvDAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=los+caprichos&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjUzrqd-K7pAhUkl3IEHRe6CcQQ6AEwAHoECAQQAg#v=onepage&q=los%20caprichos&f=false
The Museo Del Prado, Goya y Lucientes, Fransisco de- https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/artist/goya-y-lucientes-francisco-de/39568a17-81b5-4d6f-84fa-12db60780812
Rose-Marie Hagen, Rainer Hagen, “Goya: 1746-1828: On the Threshold of Modernity” https://books.google.com/books/about/Francisco_Goya_1746_1828.html?id=S-Fu4fGHnlAC