Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) – Francisco Goya

I write an awful lot about religion, simply because I am fascinated by it, but by far one of my most popular articles is about the fall of Lucifer.  It isn’t even a particularly in depth article, but I think that the reason it does so well, is actually like me, many people are intrigued with the stories which are less spoken of, drawing them to the balance of the stories which sit alongside the good, as lets face it, if there is good there has to be evil…right?  What kind of a world would religion paint if there was no balance, there would be nothing to learn from if everyone was good and nothing to rejoice in if everything was evil.

Last night I watched a film called “High Rise”, and no this isn’t going to be about that film, but in one shot this painting was in the background and it caught my eye.  I thought it may have been Goya, but couldn’t recall it, but after a little searching managed to track it down.  As it was a split second shot in the film, I had originally thought it was a ass sat with people around it, but obviously I was very mistaken.

It has been long since said that women are the gateway for the devil… with stories of Lilith and Eve being Adams downfall, but more so that women are easily dominated into the devil’s work, and this painting by Goya is a subtle but poignant jab at the royalists and clergy who he felt were regressing the progress of Spain.

This is an oil mural which Goya painted on a plaster wall, which 50 years after his death was transferred on to canvas.  In the process some of the painting was cropped off, which added to the eeriness of the painting, concentrating the audiences vision on the immediate action.  It was painted between 1821-1823 and was completed in secret, towards the end of Goya’s life, forming one of the fourteen Black Paintings that he produced.  This piece has been widely discussed, as it was painted when Goya was suffering mental and physical distress, so some critics see this as an allegory for the cruelty of aging, where some see it as a satire about the witch trials of the Spanish Inquisition, taking on board the the religious beliefs of women being the downfall of man.

I don’t particularly have a feminist outlook, but it is hard to ignore how women have been portrayed through history especially in religious circles.  In my world, I do tend to think of everyone as equal, but there are plenty of stories out there which paint women as the ones that lead men astray, like they don’t have a brain in their head.

This particular painting shows the devil in goat form, mouth open wide as though screaming at the women that surround him.  Generally thought to be a coven of witches that he has taken control of, they cower before him on mass, old and young, one to the right of him, dressed as a simple nun, indicating a corruption, a woman sits to the far right, away from the group, perhaps as she is to be indicted to the coven.  While the women are of varying ages within the coven, all of their faces appear to be in the same twisted contortion.  Vials and bottles are scattered around, perhaps showing the women’s ability to create herbal potions and all things misunderstood…

The painting has been created by black paint being applied and then the lighter layers added over the top.  You can see how the goat/man stands out from the rest of the painting, as he is the definitive base layer, everything else has been created around him.  Goya creates light within the circle which is reminiscent of  Caravaggio or Rembrandt’s techniques, which oddly lights the contorted faces of the women.

I always find it so intriguing how images that we have today of certain things came in to existence.  So much like the interpretation of women being manipulated and easily swayed by the demons, the goat figure was a misinterpretation of a theme, which caught on.

There are many theories around this, and frankly, while goats can be awkward, I hardly think of them as satanic, but some go back to the Knights Templar and their Inquisition and torture for worshiping the God Baphomet, who by the 1800s was shown as the half man, half goat form (which actually just represented contrast, but hey who am I to split hairs with worship), to stories of the sheep being an obedient animal, therefore God tending his flock of “sheep”, while the goat was stubborn, ignorant and refused to follow, so became associated with the Devil.

I particularly like how Goya has used the two misinterpreted images of the goat and women as all things evil, to take a jab at what was going on around him.

This wasn’t the first time that Goya used this type of imagery, in an earlier painting (1798) called “Witches Sabbath” Goya uses identical imagery…

GOYA_-_El_aquelarre_(Museo_Lázaro_Galdiano,_Madrid,_1797-98)

We see the devil represented as a goat with women encircling him.  They look fearful and offer him a child… but… The iconography is inverted.  The goat is extending its left arm towards the child rather than the right and the crescent moon faces out on the left hand side of the canvas, possibly as a swipe towards the irrationality of religion and its stereotypes.

Goya was a liberal thinker for his time and his paintings reflect in very subtle ways his displeasure, but to the humble on looker, they could be thought of as extolling the evils of women and how the devil takes control by force rather than respect.

What do you see when you look at “Witches Sabbath/The Great He Goat?  Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?

 

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