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Witches' Sabbath / The Great He-Goat

Francisco Goya

Witches' Sabbath / The Great He-Goat

Francisco Goya
  • Original Title: El Gran Macho Cabrío o brujas sábado
  • Date: 1821 - 1823
  • Style: Romanticism
  • Series: Black Paintings (1819-1823)
  • Genre: mythological painting
  • Media: oil, canvas, plaster
  • Dimensions: 438 x 140 cm
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In his later years, Goya lived as a solitary and deaf recluse, disillusioned with society. He resided in his house, known as La Quinta del Sordo, located outside Madrid, where he completed his fourteen Black Paintings. Goya applied these paintings directly onto the plaster walls of his house, and despite their intensely personal nature, he did not provide any titles or write about them in his letters. These works are widely considered by art historians to reflect his deteriorating physical and mental health, as they express his deepest fears and darkest depression in a nightmarish and troubling form.

One of these paintings, known as Witches' Sabbath or The Great He-Goat, depicts a dark silhouette of the devil in the form of a goat, preaching to a group of women who are likely witches. Goya's use of rough and clumsy brushwork enhances the picture's raw and abject quality, with a cluster of ghastly characters huddled together. The use of theatrical contrasts of light and dark serves to highlight the repulsive faces of the women. Unfortunately, a large portion of the painting was lost in the transfer from plaster to canvas, leaving its full meaning and content shrouded in mystery.

Witches' Sabbath is widely believed to be a critique of the Inquisition's oppressive practices and persecution, which intensified after the Bourbon monarchy's restoration in 1814 and the accession of Ferdinand VII, an anti-Enlightenment king. Goya was a staunch supporter of Enlightenment principles, which prioritized reason over religious and cult superstitions, and he abhorred the Inquisition's politically motivated actions.

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Witches' Sabbath or The Great He-Goat (Spanish: Aquelarre or El gran cabrón) are names given to an oil mural by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya, completed sometime between 1821 and 1823. It explores themes of violence, intimidation, aging and death. Satan hulks, in the form of a goat, in moonlit silhouette over a coven of ugly and terrified witches. Goya was then around 75 years old, living alone and suffering from acute mental and physical distress.

It is one of the fourteen Black Paintings that Goya applied in oil on the plaster walls of his house, the Quinta del Sordo. The paintings were completed in secret: he did not title any of the works or leave record of his intentions in creating them. Absent of fact, Witches' Sabbath is generally seen by art historians as a satire on the credulity of the age, a condemnation of superstition and the witch trials of the Spanish Inquisition. As with the other works in the group, Witches' Sabbath reflects its painter's disillusionment and can be linked thematically to his earlier etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters as well as the Disasters of War print series, another bold political statement published only posthumously.

Around 1874, some fifty years after his death, the plaster murals were taken down and transferred to canvas supports. Witches' Sabbath was much wider before transfer – it was the broadest of the Black Paintings. During the transfer about 140 cm (55 in) of the painting was cut from the right-hand side. At its reduced dimensions of 141 × 436 cm (56 × 172 in), its framing is unusually tightly cropped, which some critics find adds to its haunted, spectral aura, although others believe it distorts Goya's intentions by moving the centre of balance and reducing the painting's impact.

Goya did not title any of the fourteen Black Paintings; their modern names came about after his death. They are not inscribed, mentioned in his letters, and there are no records of him speaking of them. The works today are known by a variety of titles, most of which date to around the 1860s: his children were largely responsible for the names, with close friend Bernardo de Iriarte [es] contributing the rest. The title El Gran Cabron (The Great He-Goat) was given by painter Antonio Brugada (1804–63). The Basque term for a Witches' Sabbath, akelarre, is the source of the Spanish title Aquelarre and a derivation of akerra, the Basque word for a male goat, which may have been combined with the word larre ("field") to arrive at akelarre.

The historical record of Goya's later life is relatively scant; no accounts of his thoughts from this time survive. He deliberately suppressed a number of his works from this period  – most notably the Disasters of War series – which are today considered amongst his finest. He was tormented by a dread of old age and fear of madness, the latter possibly from anxiety caused by an undiagnosed illness that left him deaf from the early 1790s. Goya had been a successful and royally placed artist, but withdrew from public life during his final years. From the late 1810s he lived in near-solitude outside Madrid in a farmhouse converted into a studio. The house had become known as "La Quinta del Sordo" (The House of the Deaf Man), after the nearest farmhouse had coincidentally also belonged to a deaf man. Art historians assume Goya felt alienated from the social and political trends that followed the 1814 restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and that he viewed these developments as reactionary means of social control. In his unpublished art he seems to have railed against what he saw as a tactical retreat into Medievalism. It is thought that he had hoped for political and religious reform, but like many liberals became disillusioned when the restored Bourbon monarchy and Catholic hierarchy rejected the Spanish Constitution of 1812.

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