05 September 2009

Goya's Witches

Francisco Goya was a Spanish painter who lived between 1746 and 1828. He knew about monsters and witches.

Section of The Spell 1797-98. Oil on canvas, 44 x 32cm. Fundación Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid.

In The Spell a coven are ganging up a terrified man. What a line-up of witchy wickedness they are! One is sticking a pin into a voodoo doll. Another is carrying a basket of dead babies. In this painting, from around 1798, you can see how old the typical image of a witch is. They could be trick-or-treaters dressed in today’s Halloween masks and costumes. All they lack are pointed hats and broomsticks.

That is the problem with the painting. These are nasty witches certainly, but are they really scary? Don’t they look like they are trying too hard? I think this painting has lost its power because it is now an old-fashioned idea of what witches look like.

Goya could do better witches than them …

Witches in the Air 1797-98. Oil on canvas, 43.5 x 30.5 cm. Musea Nacional del Prado, Madrid.

Witches in the Air still rates high on the fright-o-meter. These witches wear pointed hats but are unusual in most other ways. They fly but need no broomsticks, they are young and, most importantly, they are male. I don’t know where the idea of witching being a purely female pursuit came from, it is by now the common idea, but it was not accepted in Goya’s time that only girls could grow to be witches.

In the painting a few witches have flown down and have scooped a man away from his friends. One survivor is making a run for it with a sheet over his head. He has his thumbs stuck out between the index and second fingers of each hand. This gesture is called the figa and it is to ward away evil.

This painting is not only scary because it features different kinds of witches from those we are used to. It is the way it is painted. It seems the victim has been picked-on at random. The picture feels like the snapshoot of a crime-in-progress. The witnesses and the inclusion of a commonplace donkey make it seem like a rural scene that has gone suddenly wrong. The witches are not frail wispy things cackling in the shadows. They are painted brightly. They are healthy, they look like they work-out. This coven is solidly real. The have man-handled their victim into the air. He is kicking and screaming. The witches are leaning in and —the horror— they are eating him.


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