Before the invention of photography, mankind recorded its most frightening historical events via paintings. Such paintings often romanticized struggles, or else presented the scenes in distorted ways, to further convey the terror experienced at the time by our ancestors. This list features the ten most disturbing paintings that depict historical atrocities and disasters from the past 450 years or so. While not photographs, these haunting images nevertheless effectively capture the sheer horror of the events that occurred so many years ago.
10. The Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1565-1567) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Bruegel, a Flemish painter of the Renaissance, based this painting on the Biblical story of Herod the Great’s failed preemptive infanticide strike, to prevent the newborn Jesus from eventually taking his throne. Now of course, Herod did not have an army of mounted pike men. Nor do we usually think of the Holy Land as being snow covered. In fact, the scene actually, despite its title, appears to be set in the Netherlands, which was on the eve of a great revolt against Spanish rule that lasted eighty years (1568 to 1648). Thus, for Bruegel, his fellow Dutch-speaking Flemings are modern “innocents,” while Philip II of Spain is a new tyrant in the manner of Herod.
In any case, there is something eerie about the impending dread of the armed soldiers in black about to do “something” to the panicky civilians in the foreground. The image thus serves as a good foreboding of things to come.
9. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (ca. 1572-84) by François Dubois
At the same time the Dutch Protestants battled against Spanish Catholics, so too did Protestants and Catholics clash in France. Dubois’s chaotic painting depicts the massacre by French Catholics of French Protestants in Paris, and the countryside that occurred on St. Bartholomew’s Day in 1572. Anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 people were slaughtered in the massacre, which was only the most notorious of the violent French Wars of Religion (1562–1598).
8. The Execution of Charles I (1649) by John Weesop
Just one year after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648, an English king was executed for, among other things, his seemingly Catholic-esque religious practices. The bloody scene of King Charles’s beheading causes the lady in the foreground to faint. What makes the scene especially terrifying, is what it meant for European monarchs. It let them know that they too could be subject to execution if they did not cooperate with their people. The picture above shows just how bad the consequences were for his actions. It also provided a grim foreshadowing of things to come, as Charles would not be the last European monarch to suffer such a fate. Indeed, for as bloody as the English Revolution was, the French Revolution of the next century would be far, far worse.
7. The Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David
You most likely have seen this image in textbooks when you get to the section about French Revolution. Marat, the so-called “friend of the people,” was actually a blood-thirsty revolutionary. To stop him, the so-called “angel of assassination” Charlotte Corday, decided to murder him. Marat had a painful skin condition that caused him to spend massive amounts of time bathing. So, Corday claimed she had knowledge of a plot against the revolutionary government to share with Marat. Marat agreed to see her while taking one of his many bathes. It was a fatal decision, as she stabbed him with a knife that cut into his lung, aorta, and heart.
6. Bonaparte Visits the Plague Stricken in Jaffa (1804) by Antoine-Jean Gros
For Napoleon, if fighting against the Ottomans and British in the Middle East was not bad enough, he also had to contend with a demoralizing outbreak of bubonic plague. This painting shows Napoleon trying to brave the disease, so as to inspire his grotesquely suffering troops. This particular campaign did not end well for the French, as Napoleon ultimately abandoned his army, and returned to France. In this painting, the French soldiers are clearly the victims. In other scenes of the era, however, they are hardly depicted in such a sympathetic light.
5. The Third of May 1808 (1814) by Francisco Goya
Unlike the English Revolution, the French Revolution dragged on and so multiple changes of government. Eventually, Napoleon seized power and became Emperor of the French. He also placed his brother on the throne of Spain. Not surprisingly, Spaniards were not enthusiastic about a foreign occupation, and so resisted the French invasion. The above image shows an unarmed, Christ-like Spaniard being gunned down with fellow civilians by French soldiers, who almost resemble storm troopers.
4. The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819) by Théodore Géricault
In 1816, a French ship, headed for a French colony in Africa, ran aground off the African coast. Stranded and desperate, the crew quickly constructed a raft out of parts of the ship Medusa. While the well-off passengers escaped on lifeboats, 147 others boarded the raft to be towed by ropes from the lifeboats, toward the shore. As the people on the raft grew restless, those on the lifeboats let the raft lift. It then drifted in the Atlantic Ocean for thirteen days. When another ship came upon the raft to rescue the survivors, only fifteen out of 147 remained alive, the others having perished in various fashions, with some apparently having been cannibalized.
Two survivors wrote a stirring account of their experiences, which encouraged Géricault to depict the moment of the raft’s rescue. The painter even visited corpses at a morgue, to make sure his painting accurately showed human death. If nothing else, this particular painting shows us that violence and bloodshed can be committed by humans, even in times of relative peace.
3. Souvenir of Civil War (1848) by Ernest Meissonier
Meissonier’s work went beyond scenes of the First French Empire, to depict events more contemporaneous with his own life. This particular painting provides a snapshot of events that occurred halfway through the artist’s life. Meissonier served as a national guardsman during the Revolution, and personally fought against the rebels at the barricade in the scene he immortalized above. The painting essentially serves as a warning about the human cost of civil war, a lesson that would sadly be taught again and again in European and world history.
2. Explosion (1917) by George Grosz
German artist Grosz volunteered for World War I duty in 1914, and was discharged in 1915 after being hospitalized for sinusitis. As such, he lived in Germany during the catastrophic war, that resulted in the loss and destruction of millions of German lives. Not only did he paint the apocalyptic portrait of a fiery explosion, capturing the sentiments of disillusionment felt by many in the fourth year of the war, he continued his protests in other forms, even after the War concluded. He was arrested for participating in the Spartacist Uprising of January 1919, fined for insulting the army in 1921, and he left Germany in the early 1930’s to avoid living under the Nazis. He moved to America and, from there, learned of the new wave of horrors experienced by Europeans, at the hands of dictators in Italy, Spain, and Germany.
1. Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso
Roughly half a million people lost their lives in the Spanish Civil War, from 1936 to 1939. Pablo Picasso’s painting depicts the horror of German and Italian planes bombing a Spanish city in 1937. Hitler and Mussolini had come to the assistance of fellow dictator Francisco Franco, which allowed Franco to win the war, and Hitler and Mussolini to test out their weapons, prior to World War II. This poignant example of cubism shows men and animals alike, in a distorted and bizarre scene of agony and terror. The painting is one of Picasso’s most well-known, and frequently appears in art and history textbooks alike. The painting serves as a reminder that the struggle against Fascism and Nazism actually began well before World War II officially commenced in 1939.
By Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, who has also written Banned From The Internet.