Artists nowadays like to shock. But that’s not especially new. While it’s easy to imagine older art was constrained by the (presumed) delicate sensibilities and puritan morals of the time, many classical works put horror films to shame. Here are ten of the most disturbing.
10. The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1500-1505
The title of this triptych refers to panel two, “a false Paradise given over to the sin of lust.” The panel on the right depicts the true earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden, while the panel on the left depicts Hell.
Naturally, it’s the latter that’s most disturbing. Teeming with demons and tortured souls, it’s as shocking today as in 1505. Being a Bosch, there’s a lot to take in: souls swallowed whole by a bird-headed demon and pooped out into a sewer; a pig in a nun’s veil; people immersed in freezing cold water; people forced to eat toads; and so on. There’s also a man whose backside is branded with sheet music (a piece you can listen to here).
9. The Smiling Spider – Odilon Redon, 1887
As a boy Odilon Redon was a “sad and weak child” who always “sought out the shadows.” It’s a calling that never left him. Asked as an adult what his favorite things to paint were, he simply replied “My monsters.”
Drawing on his interests in natural history, psychiatry, and microscopy, his charcoal and lithograph creatures were nightmarish to say the least. Collectively, they’re known as his noirs or “black things.” Besides the smiling spider (and its crying counterpart), they include: an antlered skeleton; a cactus man; a hirsute cyclops; an egg-head in an egg-cup; and an unhappy swamp flower.
Though fantastically varied, most of them have one thing in common: their human-like faces or features – even if it’s just a single eye. This is typical of the Symbolist movement. It represents the artist’s desire to skitter off to higher states and visions. And while his use of black alone might seem counter to this aim, Redon explained why he chose it: “One must respect black, nothing prostitutes it. It does not please the eye and it awakens no sensuality. It is the agent of the mind far more than the most beautiful color to the palette or prism.”
8. The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji – Katsushika Hokusai, ca. 1831
You might know Hokusai for his famous Great Wave. But he’s also known in Japan for his yurei-zu paintings of ghosts. Onry? – the malevolent spirits popularized by The Ring franchise – were very common subjects for this genre.
In this woodblock print, Hokusai portrays the ghost of the murdered kabuki actor Kohada Koheiji. Drowned in a swamp by his wife and her lover, Koheiji came back for revenge. Interestingly, Edo period officials sought to censor this work not because it was scary but because they thought actors immoral.
The yurei-zu genre wasn’t always disturbing; some works portrayed good spirits, such as ubume – dead mothers who long for their kids. But they’re all pretty spooky.
7. Saisaburo Cruelly Murders Ohagi – Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, ca. 1867
Similar to yurei-zu but focused on the living are chimidoro-e (“bloody”) and muzan-e (“cruel”) prints and paintings. The “last great master” of woodblock prinring, Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, was prolific in both of these genres. Drawing on kabuki and noh performances, Tsukioka’s works include: Naosuke Gombei ripping off a face; Shirai Gompachi slashing an assailant by a fire; Furuteya Hachir?bei murdering a woman in a graveyard; and Fukuoka Mitsugi with flying papers, severed head.
The print pictured here – Saisaburô Cruelly Murders Ohagi – is archetypical of the cruel and bloody genres. Taken from a kabuki play based on a novel, it shows the spurned Saisaburô slashing his beloved with a samurai sword. Since Ohagi is bound and suspended, all the power lies with the killer.
6. The Severed Heads – Theodore Gericault, 1818
Géricault was fascinated by death and dissection. So much so that while undergoing surgery for a tumor on his spine, he refused anesthesia so he could watch the operation with a mirror. He died a little while later.
The Severed Heads is a grisly still-life of the body parts he kept around his studio. He also kept corpses, which he positioned like mannequins for his studies of the dead. All of this was preparation for his larger-than-lifesize masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), another disturbing work – at least politically. It depicted the scandalous aftermath of a recent shipwreck in which senior officers left the lower ranks to die before cannibalizing each other to survive. Géricault was so intent on finishing this critique of the establishment that he shaved his curly hair off to ensure he’d stay inside out of vanity.
5. The Dog – Francisco Goya, 1819-1823
Between 1819 and 1823, the aged and alienated royal court painter Francisco Goya locked himself away in a farm house. He spent the next few years, deaf and alone, painting on the walls in despair. These images weren’t meant to be seen. But half a century later, the building’s new owner had the murals transferred onto canvas. Collectively, they’re known as the Black Paintings – not so much for their shadowy palette as the harrowing subjects and themes. According to a guide at the Museo del Prado “some people can hardly even look at them.”
For many, though, it’s The Dog that’s most disturbing. It’s also the simplest. There are no ghouls or creepy grins, no decomposing diners; there’s not much of anything at all. All we see are an ambiguous swell in the foreground (a hill, perhaps, or a wave), a heavy sky in the background, and between them a lonely dog’s head. Whatever you make of the image, its bleakness can’t fail to disturb – as if a glimpse of Goya’s despair.
Intriguingly, of the 15 paintings found, only 14 are fully accounted for. The fifteenth was swiped by the Marquis of Salamanca and we still don’t know for sure what was in it.
4. The Nightmare – Henry Fuseli, 1781
The Nightmare has always been popular. From its first exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, it “excited … an uncommon degree of interest.” Everyone wanted a copy. Art snobs even looked down on Fuseli for allowing so many engravings; Sigmund Freud and Mary Shelley both had prints on their walls.
Not everyone liked the work, though. Some felt it lacked moral lessons: where was God in this chairoscuro chamber? For the painter, that wasn’t the point. Fuseli was seeking what the Romantics called ‘sublime’, the strongest emotion we have. In this case, as our gaze meets that of the demon, it’s the pull of both fear and attraction.
There’s quite a dark backstory too. While painting The Nightmare, Fuseli was in love with another man’s fiance. In fact, her portrait can be found on the back of the canvas. Writing to a friend, he recounted a vivid dream of making love to the woman, concluding that “anyone who touches her now commits adultery and incest! She is mine, and I am hers. And have her I will.” This certainly adds something to the work. But was he the imp-like incubus or the outraged horse in the corner?
3. Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan – Ilya Repin, ca. 1883-1885
In 1581 Ivan the Terrible (the first Tsar of Russia) is thought to have killed his own son. It’s not clear how or why. Some say it was a response to seeing his son’s pregnant wife in her undergown (a moral affront to the Tsar). Others think it followed a more politically minded dispute. It may have been accidental, it may have been on purpose – but the remorse here is desperately clear. This son was Ivan’s sole heir; the other was mentally ill.
Even the artist was disturbed by this work, “gripped with fear” while he painted. Ilya Repin recalled working obsessively “in rushes” and hiding the work in between. Once completed it was banned by Alexander III and hidden from public view too (the first such ban in Russian history). Although uncensored three months later, it’s been controversial ever since. One might even say haunted.
In 1913, an icon painter took a knife to the canvas, slashing at the faces, screaming “enough of death, enough of bloodshed!” And when the gallery curator heard this news, he threw himself under a train. Repin later restored the old painting, but the work has never been safe. Another man attacked the painting in 2018 – smashing young Ivan’s body with a post from the gallery’s rope barriers. Like many Russians, the vandal considered Ivan a saint and the painting therefore sacrilegious.
2. The Temptation of St. Anthony – Salvator Rosa, 1645
Salvator Rosa had a fascination with demons, witches, black masses, and so on. Here, he imagines St. Anthony’s encounter with demons from Hell in the desert. While it’s not the best known portrayal of the tale (rarely even getting a mention), it’s easily the most disturbing. Even Bosch and Dalí couldn’t quite match this vision.
He got ideas for that creature from medieval bestiaries, as well as the paintings of Bosch. Yet it wouldn’t look out of place in a horror film. As one art blogger noted, there’s something of the xenomorph about it. Even today, 400 years in the future, we still find this demon disturbing.
The most frightening part, though, has to be the belly button – since it tells us this thing has a mother.
1. Saturn Devouring His Son – Peter Paul Rubens, 1636
Saturn is the Roman name for Kronos, the Titan of Greek mythology who personified aging and time. According to the ancient myth, he usurped his father Uranus’s throne as ruler of the universe. Then he feared one of his own sons would do the same – so he devoured them all the moment they were born (except Zeus, who escaped).
Rubens’ iconic painting isn’t the only portrayal of the myth; Goya did one too, among his Black Paintings. But it’s one of the most disturbing – not least because it makes us feel so helpless. There’s nothing we can do but watch the child die. It’s an all too common feeling nowadays amid mass media coverage of international conflicts – most of which also involve self-serving old men sacrificing the young to keep their own ill-gotten power intact. Fittingly, this painting was commissioned by Philip IV of Spain for one of his hunting lodges.
In case you’re wondering, the three lights at the top are a depiction of Saturn the planet. Before telescopes were invented, astronomers saw the rings as peripheral stars or moons.