You don’t have to delve so deep into art history before you come across haunting and disturbing paintings. Depicting death, recounting dark Greek Myths, an artist’s interpretation of hell. Here are just a few disturbing paintings that will keep you up all night.

GOYA’S SATURN DEVOURING HIS SON

Depicting the greek myth of the Titan Cronus (the Romanised name, Saturn), who, after hearing of a prophecy, feared that one of his sons would usurp his power like he did his own father. He then ate each one of his sons upon their birth. However, his wife Rhea hid their youngest son, Zeus from Cronus, who eventually fulfilled the prophecy, killed his father and ended his reign. 

‘Saturn Devouring his Son’ by Francisco Goya (c. 1819–1823)

In the Greek myth, Cronus devours his sons whole, in fact, they continue living in his stomach. Goya’s interpretation is a lot more gruesome. He portrays the Titan as a mad man in the throes of a frenzy, his eyes open wide and enraged just as he bites down on the elbow of his son. His grip on the baby is unyielding, his fingers penetrating the skin and drawing blood.

The painting is one of the 14 Black Paintings that were painted onto the walls of Goya’s home between 1819 and 1823. The series depict haunting themes that are reflective of Goya’s own fears of insanity.

THE NIGHTMARE BY HENRY FUSELI

Painted in 1781, ‘The Nightmare’ depicts a woman draped across her bed, her arms, neck and head hanging off the mattress. She is bathed in glowing white light as she sleeps. Crouched on her chest is an ape-like demonic incubus while a black horse with glowing eyes and flared nostrils emerges from behind the drapes in the background.

The painting was first shown at the Royal Academy of London in 1782. According to Fuseli’s biographer, John Knowles, the painting “excited … an uncommon degree of interest”. The painting has no moralising subject, but rather a creation of Fuseli’s own imagination. There have been a number of different interpretations over the years and it received much criticism for its sexual underlying themes. 

‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli (1781)

It is thought that the painting is based on German folklore, believing that demons that would possess people who slept alone – men would be visited by horses while women would engage in sex with the devil.

THE SCREAMING POPE SERIES

‘The Screaming Pope Series’ by Francis Bacon (1950s)
Image Source: Widewalls

This terrifying series, painted by Francis Bacon in the 1950s were inspired by Velasquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’ and took almost twenty years to create. Bacon not only took inspiration from Velasquez, but he also turned to Eusentein’s film, ‘Battleship Potemkin’ as a muse when creating the painting of the pope as the screaming head of a man being executed in an electric chair. The paintings portray pain and anguish in the subjects eyes and facial expression. It is a truly horrifying series of portraits.

FLAYING OF MARSYAS

The last known work of Titian, painted between 1570 and 1576 is based on Ovid’s tale of the god Apollo’s infliction of the satyr, Marsyas, who challenged him to a music contest. Titian depicts the gruesome killing by flaying in great detail, all while music and festivities commence around the execution, creating a nightmarish scene. 

‘Flaying of Marsyas’ by Titian (1575)
Image sourcee: Titian.org

The painting is dark and haunting. The scene portrays an atmosphere of decadence and lust juxtaposed with a violent torturing execution. Paying closer attention to the face of Marsyas, there’s pure fear and suffering in his eyes as he looks directly at the viewer.

THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS 

The triptych oil painting, created by Hieronymus Bosch between 1490 and 1510, depicts Eden and the moment when God presents Eve to Adam on the left panel. A garden landscape in the middle panel and hell on the right. The Triptychs was intended to be read sequentially from left to right.

‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch (1490 – 1510)

It’s the depiction of hell which is particularly haunting. Surrealistic visions and hallucinatory scenes of torture and decapitation particularly unsettling in this nightmarish scene. Animals subject humans to cruel and gruesome torments. The Prince of hell takes the centrepiece and is shown as a giant bird-headed monster that devours human corpses. 

JUDITH SLAYING HOLOFERNES

According to the Book of Judith, Judith seduced and pleasured Holofernes, the Syrian general who was assigned to tear down the city of Bethulia, Judith’s home. Judith knew that she had to protect her people and her city, so one night, she entered Holofernes’ tent and fed him with copious amounts of alcohol. When Holofernes passed out drunk, Judith seizes her sword and slays him: “Approaching to his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head”. 

There are a number of depictions of Judith slaying Holoferne, two of which are particularly spine-chilling.

‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ by Caravaggio (c. 1598–1599)

Carvaggio’s interpretation of the biblical story, painted between 1598 to 1599, captures the disturbing moment when Judith severs Holofernes’ head from his body while Judith’s maid, Abra, stands to the right of her mistress. What’s terrifying about this scene, isn’t the crime that is being portrayed but the emotions in the faces of the three characters. Judith’s expression is a combination of disgust and heroic determination.

Another interpretation of the story of Judith slaying Holofernes that’s worth noting is Artemisia Gentileschi’s version of events, painted between 1620 and 1621.

THE FACE OF WAR

Salvador Dalí’s surreal rendition of the traumas of war was commonly interpreted as a premonition of World War II. It’s also thought that the work was also inspired by the trauma and horrors of war because ‘The Face of War’ was painted in 1940, between the end of the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of the Second World War.

The disembodied face, placed in an unknown barren desert, is withered, almost decomposing. It holds expressions of misery and fear. Painted in the mouth and eye sockets are identical faces, giving the illusion that the faces are infinite. 

‘The Face of War’ by Salvador Dali (1940)

The painting depicts a disembodied face hovering against a barren desert landscape. The face is withered like that of a corpse and wears an expression of misery. In its mouth and eye sockets are identical faces. In their mouths and eyes are more identical faces in a process implied to be infinite. Swarming around the large face are biting serpents. In the lower right corner is a hand print that Dalí insisted was left by his own hand. Dalí gives this impression that war is eternal. 

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