Witches' Sabbath (The Great He-Goat)
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 (1746–1828), probably completed between 1821–1823. Although there is no record of his thoughts during this period, the work seems to explore themes of violence, intimidation, aging and death. Goya was then around 75 years, living alone and suffering in acute mental and physical distress. In this work Satan takes the form of a goat, and hulks in moonlit silhouette over a coven of ugly and terrified witches.
Goya was a commercially successful and royally placed artist, yet these late life murals were completed in secret; he did not title or leave record as to his intentions with any of the works in the sequence. Witches' Sabbath is generally assumed by art historians as a satire on the credulity of the age, a condemnation of superstition and the witch trials of the Spanish Inquisition. The principal characters are the inhuman devil and withdrawn young girl in black clothes on the far right; she sits apart from the other women, perhaps in defiance.
Housed in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, it is one of the 14 so called Black Paintings applied in oil on the plaster walls of his house, the Quinta del Sordo between 1820-1823. Goya did not intend for any of the murals to be exhibited. He did not mention them in his letters and there are no surviving records of him speaking of them. Around 1874, some 50 years after his death, the plasters 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.
We know little about Goya's thoughts during his final years. He withdrew from public life; art historians assume that he felt disgust at the social and political trends that followed the 1814 restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and that he viewed them as reactionary means of social control. Goya seems to have railed in his unpublished art against what he saw as a tactic retreat into Medievalism. 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.
Goya did not title any of the "Black Paintings"; their modern names came about after his death. Some are known by a variety of names, attributed to a number of sources, including his children, and his friend Bernardo de Iriarte from around 1868. The title of El Gran Cabron (The Great He-goat) was given by painter Antonio Brugada (1804–1863). 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.
The historical record of Goya's later life is relatively scant, and no accounts of his thoughts from this time survive. He deliberately suppressed a number of works from this period, including series – most notably The Disasters of War series – today considered as amongst his finest. Goya was tormented by dread of old age and fear of madness, the latter possibly from an anxiety caused by an undiagnosed illness that left him deaf from the early 1790s. 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 farmhouse nearest to him had coincidentally also belonged to a deaf man. It is thought that he had hoped for political and religious reform, but like many liberals became disillusioned when the restored Bourbon monarchy, encouraged by the Catholic hierarchy, rejected the Spanish Constitution of 1812.
Goya went to exile in France in 1824, and ownership of the house passed to his grandson Mariano. An 1830 inventory by his friend Antonio Brugada indicates that the work was positioned in the ground, taking a full wall between two windows, opposite to A Pilgrimage to San Isidro. On the wall to the right were Saturn Devouring His Son and Judith and Holofernes. Leocadia, Two Old Men and Old Man and Old Woman were placed on the wall to the left. Art historian Lawrence Gowing observed that the lower floor was divided thematically: a male side – Saturn, A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, and a female side – Judith and Holofernes, Witches' Sabbath and Leocadia.
The house changed owners a number of times before March 1873, when it came into the possession of the Belgian Frédéric Émile d'Erlanger, who speculated that the area would appreciate in value in the coming years. 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. 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.
Satan preaches from a raised earth mound, and is dressed in clerical clothing that may be a soutane. He wears a goat-like beard and horns, references to irrational animal instinct. 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. 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. The women comprise a mixture of old and young, and they share similar twisted expressions; all but one are scowling, nervous and obedient. Goya's use of tone to create atmosphere refers to both Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera. Ribera was an admirer of Caravaggio and utilised tenebrism and chiaroscuro. Goya learned from these sources, and from Rembrandt, some of whose prints he owned.
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."
The eyes of some figures emit beams of white light. The faces of the two main figures – the goat and the woman to the far right – are hidden.She seems separated from the main group, or is perhaps about to be initiated into the coven; or represents the artist's maid and probable lover Leocadia Weiss, whose full-length portrait appears in the same series.
As with the other Black Paintings, Goya began with a black background which he over-painted with lighter paint, then with broad, heavy brushstrokes applied grey, blue and brown pigments. The darker areas were achieved by leaving the black under-paint exposed; this is most obvious in the passages of the figure of the Devil. It is likely that he worked with mixed materials; chemical analysis shows the use of oils.
Technical analysis indicates that most of the "Black Paintings" utilised 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. 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. 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. Unique in the series, Witches' Sabbath was not significantly altered by Goya after his initial work.
The work is thought of as a protest against the royalists and clergy who had retaken control of Spain after the Peninsular War of 1807–14. Advocates of the Enlightenment had sought to redistribute land to the peasants, to educate women, publish a vernacular Bible and, by replacing superstition with reason, put an end to the Inquisition. Witch hunting, as seen during the Logroño Inquisition was anathema and appalling to idealist liberals such as Goya.
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.
Goya had used witchcraft imagery in his 1797-8 Caprichos print series,and in his his similarly-titled 1789 painting Witches' Sabbath. In both the 1789 and 1822 Sabbath pictures, the Devil is presented as a goat surrounded a ring of terrified women bowing in respect. The 1789 painting uses traditional imagery of witchcraft in that its depictions inverts 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. 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". 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."
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; the young witch is no longer near the centre of the composition, thus reducing her centrality and impact. 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.
Unfortunately 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 perceived overly long canvas, the empty space on the right might have been viewed as 'unnecessary'. 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 technique was a move against contemporary conventions of balance and harmony, a pre-emptor of today's artistic sensibilities, and a precursor to works by artists such as Francis Bacon who greatly admired Goya's depiction of what he described as "the void".
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.
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." Goya's use of chalk for the preparatory drawings compounded the problem, as oil and chalk generally do not bind well. In addition, 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."
We know the effect of many of Martinez Cubells changes from his accounts, but they inevitably lack objectivity. More reliable are two overlapping photographs taken in the 1860s by Juan Laurent, now in the Witt Library. 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.
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- As he had with for the "Caprichos" and "The Disasters of War" series. See Licht 159
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- His use of chiaroscuro was probably in part influenced by the works of Joseph Wright of Derby, engravings of which were widely available in Spain
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- Laurent took seven confirmed photographs of the series, two more are probably his work. See Glendinning (1975), 465
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- At the Museo del Prado
- Ficha del catálogo de la Fundación Lázaro Galdiano (Spanish)
- Digital tour of the Quinta del Sordo