Why Did Francisco Goya Paint Witches?

Francisco Goya’s grim and unnerving images of witches’ sabbaths and flying sorceresses hide an intriguing story behind them.

Jun 24, 2023By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

francisco goya witches


Francisco Goya started his career as a joyful rococo painter, but over the years the famous artist turned into a master of scary scenes. Among the variety of menacing figures in his works, witches appear to have a special place. But what was the reason for such a strange interest? Read on to learn more about why Francisco Goya decided to paint these scary creatures in his works.


Who was Francisco Goya?

goya self portrait painting 1790
Self-Portrait at an Easel by Francisco Goya, 1790-95, via Wikimedia Commons


Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, commonly known as Francisco Goya, was the most important painter of the Spanish Enlightenment. He is sometimes even considered the first modernist artist, preceding other candidates like Gustave Courbet or Edouard Manet. Goya was remarkable because of his unwillingness to turn a blind eye to reality. Unlike many of his fellow artists, Goya openly criticized the vices and issues of Spanish society, leaving it to others to paint an idealized picture. Although his career started with cheerful and decorative Rococo paintings, and continued with royal portraits, during his late years Goya turned to grim scenes full of violence, dark magic, and mythological events.


Goya’s life is full of mysteries. There aren’t many credible accounts of his life, which leaves a lot of blank spots in his biography. We do know that Goya was an avid believer in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, reason, and social reform. Nonetheless, his paintings often showed unsettling dark figures of sorcerers, demons, and monsters. But how could such an enlightened person like Goya believe in witchcraft?


Witchcraft in Spain

goya bewitched man painting 1798
The Bewitched Man (The Devil’s Lamp) by Francisco Goya, 1798, via Wikimedia Commons


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By the 1800s, the Inquisition was still a governmental institution in Spain, with its last execution happening in 1826, two years before Goya’s death. The liberal classes to which Goya belonged were horrified by ruthless methods, bloodcurdling torture, and corrupt trials. They were begging for justice and reform. According to the research done by Goya’s contemporaries fighting to abolish the Inquisition, from 1481 to 1808, almost 32 thousand people were burned alive on the accusations of heresy and witchcraft in Spain.


As the philosophy of the Enlightenment impacted the wealthy elites of Europe, belief in witchcraft was reconsidered as a superstitious practice of uneducated poorer classes. Goya was one of the privileged Spaniards concerned with widespread folkloric superstitions and horrified by the actions of the Inquisition and the hunting of witches happening in villages.


goya inquisition painting 1812
The Inquisition Tribunal by Francisco Goya, 1812-19, via Wikimedia Commons


In the late 1790s, the Spanish noble family of Pedro Tellez-Giron, the 9th Duke of Osuna, commissioned six paintings of witches from Goya. Although the family members were well-known patrons and philanthropists, they were also concerned with the lack of education and widespread superstitions of peasants and workers.


The Duchess of Osuna regularly held salons and meetings to discuss how beliefs in witches and demons could harm the uneducated classes and interfere with scientific and social progress. The Osuna family were true skeptics, so the paintings were supposed to demonstrate the destructive forces of ignorance and fear. The works painted by Goya directly addressed these issues and featured many details illustrating practices of witchcraft and trial procedures of the time. These details were obvious to Goya’s contemporaries, but they puzzle the present-day viewers. Take a look at some of Goya’s pieces that feature witches.


1. Witches’ Sabbath 

francisco goya sabbath painting 1797
The Witches’ Sabbath by Francisco Goya, 1797-98, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the most famous witch paintings by Goya shows a circle of witches gathered around a black goat on a barren desert-like field. They are all watching and listening attentively as the goat, the Devil himself blessing them with its left hoove. According to popular belief, witches’ sabbaths were mocking the Christian rituals by mimicking their attributes and distorting their meanings. Instead of communion and prayers, witches were having feasts and orgies as if to offend God with their actions and profess their loyalty to Satan.


Next to the circle of witches, there is a post with dolls hanging. This particular detail illustrates the belief that witches made dolls and bewitched them in order to harm the people that they represented. One of the witches is seen holding an infant child, probably abducted from their mother, who would later be sacrificed and eaten.


There is also a slight sexual undertone in this composition, which isn’t so obvious at first glance. A climbing plant is wrapping around the goat’s horns. Although it is commonly mistaken for oak or ivy, it is, in fact, a fig. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their private parts after eating the Forbidden Fruit. In the early modern era, these leaves were used not only for biblical figures but also for Ancient Greek and Roman statues. The meaning of nudity shifted from the appraisal of an athletic body to a shameful and unholy act that offends public morals. For that reason, many ancient sculptures in the early modern period had their genitals covered with sculpted fig leaves. Using fig leaves around the goat’s horns suggested that the Devil seduced witches, leading them away from Christian virtues.


2. Witches’ Flight 

francisco goya flight painting 1797
The Witches’ Flight by Francisco Goya, 1797, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the most disturbing paintings of the series is called The Witches’ Flight. It is a terrifying scene of violence and horror. In a dark sky, three witches are hovering beyond the ground. Unlike with The Witches’ Sabbath, their genders are unclear. The witches wear a specific type of clothing: long coroza hats, usually worn by alleged witches and heretics during the Inquisition trials, and short pants typical for flagellants (Catholics who whipped themselves in the act of religious penitence). They are holding their victim without effort, tearing his flesh with their teeth.


Down, on the ground, another horrifying scene is taking place. Two peasants, involuntary witnesses of the morbid act, are trying to save themselves or at least spare themselves from looking at the frightening sight. One has given up, lying on the ground facedown, while the other tries to run in an unknown direction, covering his head with a scarf. A gesture he is making with his hands called manu fica was an obscene symbol associated with female genitals but also a talisman to ward off evil. In the background, there is another surprising figure. We see a donkey, seemingly unaffected by the events. Goya most likely used the animal as a symbol of stubborn stupidity, prejudice, and ignorance.


3. The Spell 

francisco goya spell painting 1797
The Spell by Francisco Goya, 1797-98, via Reddit


The Spell shows another scene of witches attacking a seemingly innocent person. All the attributes are still there: owls, bats, cursed dolls, and baskets with babies. Some art historians believe this painting was much more rooted in reality than the rest of the series. Although many theories about Goya’s life are nothing more than speculations, there is evidence that one of Goya’s friends, the writer Leandro Fernandez de Moratin, studied the history of court trials on witchcraft and could have shared his discoveries with Goya. Moratin was particularly interested in a 1610 trial from Logroño, Spain.


A woman named Graciana de Barrenechea allegedly broke into her enemy’s house, woke her up, and poisoned her with the help of other witches and the devil himself. Many locals believed Barrenechea was the queen of witches and the most powerful sorceress in the area. The Inquisition executed Barrenechea, but her fame stuck since the authorities kept labeling the next generations of alleged witches the queen’s heiresses. Some art historians argue that the figure in the yellow cloak in Goya’s painting is a representation of Graciana de Barrenechea poisoning her victim. Although according to the evidence, the incident happened indoors, the barren landscape behind the figures adds a nightmarish vibe to the scene.


4. The Great He-Goat

goya great goat painting 1821
Witches’ Sabbath or The Great He-Goat by Francisco Goya, 1821-23, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the latest witch paintings of Goya was painted on the plaster wall of his house and then transferred onto canvas after his death. The artist was in his late seventies and lived in isolation. He was suffering from deafness and numerous mental and physical diseases. The title of the painting emerged decades after Goya’s death: a series of fourteen murals, which included The Great He-Goat, was never discussed by the artist or shown to anyone. This forced some art historians to suspect that Goya was not the real creator of these works. Although most experts do not doubt the authenticity of the paintings, some believe that it was not Goya but his son Javier who painted them.


The murals, all dealing with Goya’s fear of insanity and disillusionment with humanity, were titled the Black Paintings, partly because of the morbid impressions they make and partly because of the technique that was used. Instead of constructing his dark images on a lighter background, Goya first covered the entire wall with black paint, adding strokes of lighter colors over it. The figure of a black goat preaching to a group of petrified women could be another illustration of how fear produced by superstition can paralyze people and hold them hostage.


Witches in Francisco Goya’s artworks: Cautionary Tales or Propaganda?

goya caprichos reason print 1799
Plate 43 from Los Caprichos: The sleep of reason produces monsters by Francisco Goya, 1799, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Goya’s satirical series Los Caprichos contained the most comprehensive expression of his political opinions. The series of 80 etchings was a detailed illustration of the many vices of Spanish society. There were corrupt priests, greedy politicians, failed marriages, and of course, witches, demons, and monsters. These creatures were taking advantage of the unreasonable mind of an average Spaniard. Goya’s position on superstition and witchcraft was summarized in one particular sentence on one of the plates: The sleep of reason produces monsters. The artist insisted on the necessity of accessible education and the separation of the church and the state. While insisting that the belief in witchcraft harmed the believers, Goya also pointed out that the church and the Inquisition reinforced the superstitions and validated them with their actions.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.