Witches' Sabbath (The Great He-Goat)

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This article is about the painting now in the Prado. For the similarly named painting now in the Museo Lázaro Galdiano, see Witches' Sabbath (Goya, 1798).
In an array of earthen colours, a black silhouetted horned figure to the left foreground presides over and addresses a large circle of a tightly packed group of wide-eyed intense, scary, elderly and unruly women
Witches' Sabbath, 1821–1823. 140cm × 438 cm, (55 × 170 inches), Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Witches' Sabbath or The Great He-Goat (Spanish: Aquelarre[1] or El gran cabrón[2]) are names given to a mural by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya. It is housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and shows Satan in the form of a goat presiding in silhouette and moonlight over a coven of disfigured, ugly and terrified witches.[3]

The painting is generally assumed as a satire on the credulity of the age;[4] a condemnation of superstition and the witch trials of the Spanish Inquisition. The painting is one of the 14 so-called Black Paintings[5] executed in oil directly onto the plaster walls of his house, Quinta del Sordo, during 1820-1823. It was completed when Goya was around the age of 75 and living alone in mental and physical distress, and seems to explore themes of violence, intimidation, aging and death.[6] Its two principal characters are the inhuman devil and the withdrawn young girl painted in a black outfit to the far right; the young girl is positioned apart from the other terrified women, perhaps to lend an aura of defiance.

Goya did not intend for any of the fourteen murals to be exhibited. He did not write about them,[7] and there is no record of him having spoken of them.[8] It was not until around 1874, some 50 years after his death, that they were taken down and transferred to canvas support. Witches' Sabbath was originally much wider, the longest in the black paintings series. During the transfer to canvas approximately 140 centimetres (55 in) of was cut from the right side. At its reduced dimensions of 140 cm by 438 cm (55 in × 172 in), its framing is unusually tightly cropped, which some critics view as adding to its haunted, spectral aura, while others believe its distorts Goya's intended center of balance and reduces the intended impact.

Goya withdrew from public life in his later years, likely in disgust at the then social and political trends in Spain following the 1814 restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. It is thought he viewed a number of developments as reactionary means of social control. He railed in his unpublished art and, perhaps, public life against what he saw as a tactic retreat into Medievalism.[9] As with the other works in the series, Witches' Sabbath reflects its painter's disillusionment and can be linked thematically to his earlier engraving The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters as well as the series "The Disasters of War" which marked another bold political statement, but not published until some 35 years after his death.


Historical records of Goya's later life are relatively scant, and no written records of his from this time thoughts survive. He deliberately suppressed his work from this period, although his surviving late works —most notably The Disasters of War series— are today seen as amongst his finest.[10] Goya was, late in his life, tormented by dread of old age and fear of madness, the latter an anxiety caused by an undiagnosed illness that left him deaf from the early 1790s to the end of his life.[11] He was out of favour at court and probably embittered by Spanish politics, and withdrew from public life. From the late 1810s he lived in near-solitude outside Madrid in a farmhouse converted into a studio. The house became known as "La Quinta del Sordo" (The House of the Deaf Man), so named because the farm house nearest to him had coincidentally also belonged to a deaf man.[12][13] It is thought that he had hoped for political and religious reform, like many liberals, became disillusioned when the restored Bourbon monarchy, encouraged by the Catholic hierarchy, rejected the Spanish Constitution of 1812.

Quinta del Sordo, photographed c. 1900

When Goya left Spain in 1824 for exile in France, ownership of the house passed to his grandson Mariano.[14] According to an 1830 inventory by Goya's friend, Antonio Brugada, the work was positioned in the ground floor of the Quinta where it occupied a full wall between two windows, opposite A Pilgrimage to San Isidro.[15] On the wall to the right were Saturn Devouring His Son and Judith and Holofernes, while Leocadia, Two Old Men and Old Man and Old Woman were placed on the wall to the left.[16] Art historian Lawrence Gowing observed that the lower floor can be divided thematically in two: a male side – Saturn, A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, and a female side – Judith and Holofernes, Witches' Sabbath and Leocadia.[17]

The house changed owners a number of times before coming into the possession of the Belgian Baron Émile d'Erlanger in March 1873. d'Erlange was speculating that the area was going to appreciate in value in the coming years.[18][19] After many years on the walls, the murals had deteriorated badly. To preserve them, the new owner of the house had them transferred to canvas under the direction of the art restorer of the Museo del Prado, Salvador Martinez Cubells.[20] Following their exhibition at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878, where they were met with little reaction, d'Erlanger donated them to the Spanish state in 1881.[21][22]


The devil stands on a raised earth mound, dressed in a type of clerical clothing that may be a soutane.[23] He wears a goat-like beard and horns, devices to associate him with irrational animal instinct.[24] He is shown in silhouette, accentuating his hulk and heavy body as well as his gaping mouth, which is depicted as if he is screaming. The devil holds court before a circle of crouched and mostly terrified women, accepted by art historians as a coven of witches.[2] His absolute power over the rapt women has been compared to that of the king in Goya's 1815 The Junta of the Philippines, where authority is gained not from respect or personal charisma, but through fear and domination.[3] The women comprise a mixture of old and young, and they share similar twisted expressions; they are but for a lone exception scowling, nervous and obedient. Goya's use of tone to create atmosphere reaches refers to both Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera. Ribera was an admirer of Caravaggio and utilised tenebrism and chiaroscuro.[25] Goya learned from these sources, while also interested in the work of Rembrandt, some of whose prints he owned.[26]

Witches' Flight, 1797–98. Museo del Prado, Madrid

An old woman sits to the right of the devil with her back to the viewer. Her face is half hidden, and she wears a white-hooded headdress resembling a nun's habit. She sits alongside bottles and vials placed on the ground to her right. Hughes has speculated that these "must contain the drugs and philtres needed for the devilish ceremonies."[27] The eyes of some figures emit beams of white light [28] while the faces of the two main figures –the goat and the woman to the far right– are hidden. The woman sitting on a chair to the far right seems apart from the main group. It has been speculated that she is about to be initiated into the coven,[27] or represents the artist's maid and probable lover Leocadia Weiss,[23] whose full length portrait appears in the same series.[28]

Goya did not title any of the "Black Paintings", their modern names date from after his death in 1828. Some of the works carry a variety of different names, which have been attributed to a number of sources, including his children, and his friend Bernardo de Iriarte sometime around 1868.[29] The title of El Gran Cabron (The Great He-goat) was given by painter Antonio Brugada (1804–1863).[30] The Spanish term for a Witches' Sabbath, Akelarre is a derivation of akerra, the Basque word for a male goat, which may have been combined with the word larre or field, to arrive at Akelarre.[31]

As with the other Black Paintings, Goya began with a black background which he over-painted with lighter hues, employing broad and heavy brush strokes to apply grey, blue and brown pigments. The darker areas of the painting were achieved by leaving the black under-paint exposed; this is most obviously seen in the parts of the figure of the Devil. It is likely that he worked with mixed materials; chemical analysis shows the use of oils.[21]

Technical analysis reveals that most of the "Black Paintings" were painted over preparatory drawings. Witches' Sabbath is the exception; the final composition seems to have been painted directly onto the wall. Like the other works in the series, it is worked up through heavy, slashing brushstrokes.[32] The plaster was first underlaid with thick carbon black, before the image was created using white lead, Prussian blue, vermilion of mercury, and crystals of powdered glass, orpiment and iron oxides.[33] Author Fred Licht notes that Goya's brushwork appears "clumsy, ponderous, and rough" and lacking finish in comparison to his earlier work. Licht believes this was a deliberate ploy by the artist to physically convey his dismay at human inadequacy and his own feelings of personal doubt.[34] Uniquely in the series, Witches' Sabbath was not significantly altered by Goya after his initial work.[32]


The devil in the form of a goat is surrounded by a coven of disfigured, aging witches in a moon-lit, barren landscape. The goat possesses large horns and is crowned by a wreath of oak leaves. He acts as priest at the initiation ceremony of an emaciated infant held in the hands of one of the witches. The body of another infant lies dead near by, while bats fly overhead.
Witches' Sabbath, 1789. Goya's depictions of witchcraft mocked what he saw as medieval fears exploited for political gain.[35]

The work is generally accepted as a rail against the royalists and clergy who had retaken control of Spain after the Peninsular War of 1807–1814. Advocates of the Enlightenment had sought to redistribute land to the peasants, educate women, publish a vernacular Bible and, by replacing superstition with reason, end the Inquisition. Witch hunting was one of the main preoccupations of the 17th-century Logroño Inquisition,[35] and idealist liberals such as Goya found themselves opposed by traditionalists who blocked reform.

As court painter, Goya was a part of the established traditional order, and all the documentary evidence indicates that he acquiesced to the wishes of his patrons. However, numerous paintings and etchings have emerged that suggest he had a firm conviction in favour of enlightened reason. He seems to have kept such beliefs private, only expressing them in his art; his more sensitive works were not published at the time, probably for fear of reprisal or persecution. In Witches' Sabbath Goya mocks and ridicules the superstition, fear and irrationality of the ignorant who put faith in ghouls, quack doctors and tyrants.[9][35]

Goya had employed witchcraft imagery in his 1797-8 Caprichos series of aquatint prints,[36] many of which share similarly fantastical themes, as does his similarly-titled Witches' Sabbath of 1789. In both the 1789 and 1822 Sabbath pictures, the Devil is presented as a male goat surrounded by a ring of terrified women paying their respects.[37] The 1789 painting uses traditional imagery of witchcraft in that its depictions rely on inversion of traditional Christian iconography. The goat extends his left rather than right hoof towards the child, while the quarter moon faces out of the canvas at the top left corner.[38] The inversion is a metaphor for the irrational undermining of the liberals who argued for scientific, religious and social progress. Many of the scientific societies active at the time were condemned by church and state as subversive and their members accused as "agents of the devil".[35] Of the techniques employed in the Black Paintings, particularly that of leaving a visible black background, art historian Barbara Stafford said, that he "brusquely [inlaid] spots of light within prevailing darkness [and] aqua-tinted and painted visions [which] demonstrated the powerlessness of the unmoored intellect to unify a monstrously hybrid experience according to its own a priori transcendental laws."[39]


Unfortunate events in the front seats of the ring of Madrid, and the death of the Mayor of Torrejón. Plate 21 of Goya's Tauromaquia series. Robert Hughes wrote of this print's "naked power [with] which Goya has played off void against solid, black against light, empty space against full."[40]

Chief restorer Salvador Martinez Cubells retouched the goat's horns and a number of the witches' faces. He removed over 140 centimetres (55 in) of landscape and sky to the right of the postulant witch where the paint had been badly damaged. This alteration significantly shifted the work's center of balance, while the young witch is no longer near the centre of the composition, thus reducing her centrality and impact.[21] Some art historians have speculated that the area was beyond restoration, given that it is unlikely that such a large area painted by an artist of Goya's stature would be lightly discarded.[27]

U8nfortunatly Cubells was not an accomplished painter and lacked insight into Goya's intentions. The removal may have been for aesthetic reasons; to bring balance to a percieved overly long canvas, the empty space on the right was might have been viewed as 'unnecessary'.[41] If this was his reasoning, it was misguided; Goya had often utilised empty space to dramatic and evocative effect. This can be notably seen in both The Dog from the same series, and his etching on paper Unfortunate events in the front seats of the ring of Madrid, and the death of the Mayor of Torrejón, where areas of pictorial space are almost completely devoid of detail. This was a move against contemporary conventions of balance and harmony, a prememptor of today's artistic sensibilities,[42] and a precursor to works by artists such as Francis Bacon who greatly admired Goya's depiction of what he described as "the void".


Merging of two photographs by Juan Lauren taken in the 1860s, before the removal of badly damaged landscape to the far left and right during the 1870s transfer to canvas. The cutting down significantly altered the painting's centre of balance

The painting is in poor condition. The effects of time, coupled with the inevitable damage caused by the stressful transfer –which involved mounting crumbling plaster onto canvas– have resulted in extensive damage and loss of paint. It seems to have undergone significant damage before its removal from the walls of Goya's home.[33] That it was painted on dry plaster contributed to its early deterioration. Frescos completed on dry (rather than wet) plaster can survive for a long period on a roughened surface. However, Evan Connell believes that in applying oil to plaster Goya "made a technical mistake that all but guaranteed disintegration." His use of chalk for the preparatory drawings compounded the problem, as oil and chalk generally do not bind well.[43] Many of the Black Paintings were significantly altered during the 1870s restoration, and critic Arthur Lubow describes the works hanging in the Prado today as "at best a crude facsimile of what Goya painted."[20]

We know the effect of many of the changes made by Martinez Cubells from his own descriptions, but these inevitably lack objectivity. More reliable are two overlapping photographs taken in the 1860s by Juan Laurent, now in the Witt Library of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.[44] They show the painting in situ in the Quinta del Sordo and are the most reliable indicators of how the paintings looked pre-restoration.

However Laurent's work presents difficulties, not least because some areas of the photographs lack resolution and contain indistinct passages. In addition, contemporary photographs tended to show yellow and reds darker, and blue and violets lighter than they were in that area being captured.[45]



  1. ^ Hughes, 386
  2. ^ a b Boime, 110
  3. ^ a b Boime, 111
  4. ^ Lima, Robert. "Stages of evil: occultism in Western theater and drama". Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006. 180. ISBN 0-8131-2362-3
  5. ^ A contemporary inventory compiled by Goya's friend, the painter Antonio de Brugada records 15. See Lubow, 2003
  6. ^ Murray, Christopher John. Encyclopedia of the romantic era, 1760–1850, Volume 1. Routledge, 446. ISBN 1-57958-423-3
  7. ^ As he had with for the "Caprichos" and "The Disasters of War" series. See Licht 159
  8. ^ Licht, 159
  9. ^ a b "Dark Knight". New York Magazine, Volume 22, No. 2, 1989. 111.
  10. ^ Connell, 175
  11. ^ The cause of Goya's illness is unknown; theories range from polio to syphilis to lead poisoning
  12. ^ Connell, 204
  13. ^ Hughes, 372
  14. ^ Gowing Lawrence. "Book review: Goya's 'Black' Paintings. Truth and Reason in Light and Liberty by Priscilla E. Muller". The Burlington Magazine, Volume 128, No. 1000, July 1986. 506–508
  15. ^ Junquera, 33, 42
  16. ^ Fernández, G. "Goya: The Black Paintings". theartwolf.com, August 2006. Retrieved 15 January 2010.
  17. ^ Junquera, 60
  18. ^ Hughes, 17
  19. ^ Glendinning (1975), 466
  20. ^ a b Lubow, Arthur. "The Secret of the Black Paintings". New York Times, 27 July 2003. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  21. ^ a b c "Aquelarre, or Witches Sabbath". Museo del Prado. Retrieved 15 January 2010.
  22. ^ Hughes, 16–17
  23. ^ a b Dowling (1973), 453
  24. ^ Vertova, Luisa. "Treasures from Florentine Houses". The Burlington Magazine, Volume 102, No. 692, November 1960. 484–487
  25. ^ His use of chiaroscuro was probably influenced in part by the works of Joseph Wright of Derby, engravings of which were widely available in Spain
  26. ^ Acton, 93–95
  27. ^ a b c Hughes, 385
  28. ^ a b Buchholz, 79
  29. ^ Hughes, 16
  30. ^ Junquera, 66
  31. ^ Boime, 261
  32. ^ a b Hughes, 382
  33. ^ a b Junquera, 37
  34. ^ Licht, 194
  35. ^ a b c d Boime, 262
  36. ^ Boime, 260
  37. ^ Nilsson, Stenake. "The Ass Sequence in Los Caprichos". Journal of Art History, Volume 47, Issue 1, 1978. 27–38
  38. ^ Hughes, 153
  39. ^ Stafford, Barbara Maria. "Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting". MA: MIT Press, 2001. 82. ISBN 0-262-69267-8
  40. ^ Hughes, 360
  41. ^ Havard, 65
  42. ^ Hagen & Hagen, 89
  43. ^ Connell, 205
  44. ^ Laurent took seven confirmed photographs of the series, two more are probably his work. See Glendinning (1975), 465
  45. ^ Glendinning (1975), 469


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