Well, Halloween, Hallowe'en or even All Hallow's Eve is quickly approaching, so we think it's time to put aside the fancy dress and trick-or-treat plans for a few minutes while we explore some of the spookiest, scariest and creepiest pieces of fine art from the rich pickings of art history! Be warned, these are not for the feint hearted or young children, we're delving into the depths of hell and the worst parts of human consciousness for this article, so if you're made of strong stuff please keep reading - this is the list for you. It might even inspire you to get stuck into some Halloween holiday arts and craft!
Witches Sabbath, Francisco Goya, 1797–1798
We'll start gently, if you can call the killing of babies gentle, which we suppose you can't really! However, the initial impression of this painting is that it could be from a Hammer Horror film - Hammer Horror being a film production company who produced their most famous movies from the 1950s to the 1970s in the UK, helping to make the formidable actors Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee famous. Hammer Horror films could be scary, but usually were more camp and cheesy than terrifying.
Anyway - all the hallmarks of a Hammer Horror film are there - an upright goat with a pagan-style crown of greenery, a gaggle of witches and hags but also, curiously, some nods to the occult as the goat reached out with it's left arm rather than right, an inversion of the standard right-handed gesture - evil in those days was often known as the 'left-hand path' and, in fact, the word sinister is a derivate of a Latin word which means 'on the left side'. Also inverted is the crescent moon - spooky!
What really stands out however, is that when you look closely you can see that one of the female figures is handing an infant to the goat, who is no doubt a personification (or should that be goatification?) of the ultimate naughty boy - Satan himself!
And if you're thinking 'Oh, don't be silly, that lovely goat wouldn't hurt a child' then maybe you should check out the bottom-left of the painting, where you'll find a suspiciously child-sized skeleton. Nice!
The Temptation of St. Anthony, Salvator Rosa, 1645
This one is an absolute banger - It looks like a cross between a Caravaggio and something you'd see in a Guillermo del Toro movie! Prostrate on the floor is Saint Anthony, rendered in dramatic light and shade (a Caravaggio trademark) while fighting off what looks like a modern day horror film creature, with his little freaky minions egging him on from behind! It looks like someone threw a man, some chicken bones, a vacuum cleaner hose and a bird skull in a blender, but back in the 1600s it must have been terrifying!
Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya, 1819-1823
The only artist to be featured twice in such a short list, you have to hand it to Goya, he really was a master of the macabre! You've got to admit, eating your own children alive isn't exactly good table manners. Based on the legend of the god Saturn, who ate his own children after hearing a prophecy that one of his offspring would usurp him, Goya portrays him as an unrepentant and barbaric cannibal. The things people do for power, eh? This painting was applied directly to the walls of Goya's residency during the bleakest time of his life, while he was in a deep depression and recovering from an illness that left him deaf. It sort of shows.
Black Death, Theodore Severin Kittelsen, 1900
Norwegian artist Theodore Severin Kittelsen was mostly known for his fairytale-like images which, while being often superficially unthreatening, usually contained a palpable sense of stillness and malice. He was a prolific artist, who created drawings and painting for many book covers but his more personal works are what he is known for nowadays.
At first glance, this isn't a particularly scary picture, but the longer you look at it, the more bleak and depressing it becomes.
The Black Death ravaged Norway, as it did many parts of the world, and once you let this picture settle in your consciousness, it really starts to take effect...
The bleakness of the landscape and how the watery swamp threatens the dry land the horse is trying to cross.
The forlorn, broken and dying trees in the foreground.
The miserable flight of the black raven across the image, like death itself slicing through the air.
But most of all, the lifeless, or at best, almost lifeless body of a man on his horse, the horse struggling with either the weight of the man or of hopelessness of the situation, or both. Ready to collapse into atrophy and death at any moment.
Bleakness rendered with unflinching honesty. A bit of a downer, really!
The Triumph Of Death, Peter Brueghel the Elder, 1562
You've got to admit that the title of this painting
alone is worthy of the top spot in this list!
One of the Art Grenade team was introduced to this painting at an impressionable age as it was used as the cover of a greatest hits compilation for the legendary Birmingham, England band Black Sabbath.
Breughel paints a relentless picture of death and destruction moving through the land mercilessly. If you were to be of a pessimistic disposition, it might make you think 'what's the point? We're all going to die anyway.' which is ultimately why this painting takes the top spot. Unflinching, unrelenting, 100% nihilistic and miserable. Fascinating and dramatic, but above all, this painting captures the horrors of medieval life and the fear of what was often just around the corner for most people who lived during that period.
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If you want to find out more about any of the artists featured in this article, check out these great books.