The Apparition (1876)
10. Gustave Moreau (1826 - 1898)
Moreau was a symbolist painter. Symbolism, a particularly French movement, has always had one eye on the horrific. The literary symbolists, for instance, were enamored of Poe. They also thought very much of Moreau. One painting in particular, The Apparition, depicts the floating severed head of John the Baptist appearing to Salome in King Herod's court. Blood pours from John's neck as he stares at Salome open-mouthed, a tear running down one cheek. Blood stains the floor; the executioner rests upon his sword in the background; and Salome, as one might imagine, is terrified. Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote a lengthy passage on the painting in his novel À Rebours, concluding, "In this insensate and pitiless image, in this innocent and dangerous idol, the eroticism and terror of mankind were depicted. The tall lotus had disappeared, the goddess had vanished; a frightful nightmare now stifled the woman, dizzied by the whirlwind of the dance, hypnotized and petrified by terror."
The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea (1805)
9. William Blake (1757 - 1827)
Blake was a unique man, a Romantic poet with an invented mythology influenced by the Bible, various mythologies, apocalyptic literature and of course the visions he claimed to receive from childhood. He frequently illustrated his poetry with gorgeous and sometimes disturbing watercolors. He was also commissioned to illustrate other works, such as Dante's Divine Comedy and the Bible. It was in his illustrations of the Bible, and naturally the Book of Revelation, the Blake produced his famous Great Red Dragon illustrations. The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea (right) depicts the Dragon, humanoid in form with his massive star wings spread out behind him spangled with stars as if to depict the cosmic force of his evil power; he's looking down with his several horned heads at the Beast rising from the sea, who is holding a sword and a sceptre, is green in colour and also has several heads, distinctly less human than the Dragon. The other illustrations in the series are The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, which depicts the Dragon with its back to the viewer looming over the woman; The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, which depicts the Dragon floating above the woman waiting to eat her child; and finally The Number of the Beast is 666, which depicts the Dragon on a rock, his main head flaming and looking skyward while the Beast sits, with his back turned to us, pointing left, and beneath the Dragon's rock is a giant, golden calf and multitudes of people bowed in prayer.
Knight, Death and the Devil (1513)
8. Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528)
Dürer is a German artist best known for his amazing woodcut prints. Amongst these were his woodcuts of the apocalypse, a series of fifteen graphic illustrations of the Book of Revelation. And perhaps his most acclaimed is a trilogy of sorts on Medieval notions of virtue: theological, intellectual and moral. The latter of which, moral virtue, became the frightening Knight, Death and the Devil. Knight depicts a rider looking straight forward and sticking on the path (with his faithful if odd-looking dog) lined though it be with grim, nearly-dead trees while a variety of horrors try to steer him from his path. Satan lurks behind the rider as a snouted, one-horned creature with a spear and cloying smile. Riding alongside him is Death, a dessicated and rotten figure, holding up an hourglass to remind the knight of the shortness of life and presumably tempt him to 'live it up.' Underhoof is a skull and a lizard scurrying in the opposite direction of the knight. It was generally thought by Dürer's contemporaries that he was illustrating Erasmus of Rotterdam's vision of the Christian knight from his Enchiridion militis Christiani, "all of those spooks and phantoms which come upon you as if you were in the very gorges of Hades must be deemed for naught... Look not behind thee."
The Comedy of Death (1854)
7. Rodolphe Bresdin (1822 - 1885)
Bresdin was an eccentric and not terribly successful artist specializing in baroque, Bosch-like engravings with the visionary flavor of William Blake. As a teacher, he counted Odilon Redon amongst his students for some time and hence his influence on the symbolist movement. Although most of his paintings have a grotesque, dark quality, The Comedy of Death is certainly the crowning achievement. In Comedy Bresdin depicts a hermit busy at prayer in his cave, while at the edge of a swampish pool of sorts an emaciated man is dying unaided. The landscape around these two is beset by nightmarish terrors: skulls and ribcages litter the land, cackling skeletons are up in the impossibly contorted trees, from the left comes a flying Jesus, and birds with rat heads lurk in the arterial thickets. Huysmans described Bresdin's work as "rather like the work of a primitive or an Albert Dürer of sorts, composed under the influence of opium."
The Haunting (1893)
6. Odilon Redon (1840 - 1916)
Redon was another French Symbolist painter whose best work is in pastel. Although his late career has fascinating works, all in colour, it's primarily his earlier works that are of interest here. It would be arbitary to single any one of Redon's works out as well. There is a whole array of truly bizarre and creepy imagery: a smiling spider, a crying spider with a human face, a set of teeth appearing over a set of books, a giant eye appearing over a courtyard as two people cower below, a cactus with a face, plants whose bulbs are human heads, and much more. The Haunting is the most blatantly frightening work, given the subject matter. It depicts a woman in white standing in pure dark. Appearing around her are impish spirits in grotesque shapes and serpentine bodies watching her from the darkness. The nondescript environment captures the essence of a nightmare; the feeling of eyes upon one's back from the unseen regions is palpable.
Figure with Meat (1954)
5. Francis Bacon (1909 - 1992)
In Céline's semi-autobiographical novel Journey to the End of the Night, he describes a colonel's torn-open belly, "All that tangled meat was bleeding profusely." His surrogate character runs back to the camp and describes what he sees as the soldiers are fed meat, "On sacks and tent cloths spread out on the grass there were pounds and pounds of guts, chunks of white and yellow fat, disemboweled sheep with their organs every which way, oozing intricate little rivulets into the grass... The squadrons were fighting tooth and nail over the innards, especially the kidneys, and all around them swarms of flies such as one sees only on such occasions..." Thus were the new horrors of war. The post-war period was an era in which artists and intellectuals tried in their respective media to find some way of dealing with the trauma of the World Wars. It produced the philosophy of existentialism, trying to find a place for humanity in an absurd universe. Francis Bacon was perhaps the epitome of a post-war artist. HIs paintings depict a tortured, screaming human world, channeling all the horror to be found in Celine's novel into images. Often basing his paintings on those of the Old Masters, like Velazquz, he contorts the figures found within them and streaks, like claw marks, the whole painting, as if tearing at the world itself. One of the most stunning of these is Figure with Meat. In Figure, Bacon takes Velazquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, an enthroned, noble, powerful-looking man in red satins and turns his glorious throne into a dark wooden chair, which the Pope clutches with his knob-like hand; his eyes have become empty, deformed sockets, his skin rotten, his mouth opened in a scream, and behind him a halo formed by two hanging slabs of meat.
Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)
4. William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 - 1905)
Unlike many of the others on this list, Bouguereau's horrifying painting was a one-off. A highly traditional painter, he naturally turned his attention to classical subjects, which included Dante. Of all the scenes in Dante's Divine Comedy to depict, he curiously chose the Fifth Circle of Hell, where the wrathful are destined to fight eternally on the surface of the river Styx while the slothful watch on from beneath the surface. In Dante and Virgil in Hell, Bouguereau depicts these events with photorealism. The crimson 'sky' of Hell glows hot in the background and in the foreground two naked men in vicious combat, one biting the other's neck vampire-like. Dante and Virgil watch the fighters in horror. Behind them the slothful writhe and watch on. Flying in the crimson sky is a winged demon, watching with a satisfied grin Dante and Virgil's horror, perhaps proud of his handiwork.
Illustration from Martyrs Mirror (1685)
3. Jan Luyken (1649 - 1712)
Jan Luyken is a fascinating case. A fanatical Calvinist Christian since a religious experience early in life, Luyken used to pray, read and do penance obsessively, after which he would compose moralistic poetry, his mind full of the sufferings of Christ and martyrs. A masterful engraver, he was asked to make some plates to illustrate a book called Martyrs Mirror, a pious text about the lives of the martyrs. For Luyken's fertile if perverted mind, this became a barrage of images of horrible tortures and excruciating deaths suffered by martyrs throughout history: a half-cooked man is tossed alive to animals to eat, a man is cooked in a giant cow-shaped oven, hot coals are applied to a man's bound feet, and various burnings, crucifixions, spearings. Huysmans, in À Rebours, writes of Luyken's work, "These pictures, full of abominable fancies, reeking of burnt flesh, dripping with blood, echoing with screams and curses made [one's] flesh creep..." There is a fervent intensity and attention to detail--excruciating detail--that makes Luyken's prints truly some of the most horrifying works of art in history.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503 - 1504)
2. Hieronymus Bosch (1453 - 1516)
Bosch hardly requires introduction. The Dutch painter was truly sui generis. A surrealist amongst the Old Masters, he painted several works of horrific imagery. Many were very busy crowd scenes full of surreal, frightening events, as in The Temptations of St. Anthony, where one can see, amongst other things, a nun trapped inside a giant fish ridden by a man whose head is a bird in a cage, a man leading a bipedal reptilian creature, and a giant plucked and gutted turkey in shoes ridden by an imp holding a shield--all to distract St. Anthony from the holy path. He also painted some simpler works, such as The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, in which a man is trepanned by an ignorant doctor wearing a funnel as a nun balancing a book on her head gazes upon the operation in boredom. Bosch's masterpiece, however, is The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Hell panel of which would be quite impossible to describe in full. To the right one can see a detail of the Hell panel in which a bird-headed monster devours a human while sitting on a highchair, under which is a sphere containing a person, whose legs dangle over a pit into which a man is forced to vomit by an imp and another man defecates snowballs; meanwhile a naked man is forced to play a brass instrument, in which another man appears to be trapped, with his anus. Bosch's paintings of Hell are frightening and incomprehensible enough to have probably converted a few souls to Christianity.
Saturn Devouring His Son (1819 - 1823)
1. Francisco Goya (1746 - 1828)
Goya, the great Spanish painter and last of the old masters, shocked by near-fatal illness into a fear of death and bitter at the state chaotic state of the world, composed his famous Black Paintings directly onto the walls of his home. These Black Paintings depicted imagery of evil both natural (wars) and supernatural (witchcraft). One of these paintings, The Great He-Goat, shows a grotesque collection of witches gathered around a black, goat-headed demon. The most famous of these paintings, however, and what this writer believes to be the most frightening, horrifying painting ever conceived, is Saturn Devouring His Son. The Greek myth is familiar to most: Saturn, afraid of being dethroned, began devouring all of his children. This dual act of infanticide and cannibalism is depicted in the most grim manner possibly by Goya. The giant Saturn, with spidery, bronze limbs stands in darkness gripping the body of his son. One can see his fingers digging into the back. The head and one arm has already been eaten. Saturn's mouth is opened wide as he devours the second arm. His eyes bulge in murderous madness. Such primal and visceral horror is, thankfully perhaps, not to be equalled thus far in art history.
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand. Journey to the End of Night. Trans. by Ralph Manheim. New York, NY: New Directions, 1983.
Huysmans, J.-K. Against Nature. Trans. by Robert Baldick. New York, NY: Penguin, 1959.
Panofsky, Erwin. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on January 10, 2020:
Excellent choices. Despite Huysmans's comment, Salome doesn't seem terrified to me.
Spurwing Plover on March 31, 2012:
If Bosch was alive today he would be working for GEORGE LUCUS designing aliens for the movies
Zabbella from NJ-USA on September 22, 2011:
Good Hub! It makes you wonder how the mind works, especially those who read the book of Revelation. Some of the visions St John described were disturbing and to see how they were illustrated was just awesome! I was reading and with each panel, I was almost afraid to look!
Marcus Teague on November 29, 2010:
This stuff isn't my cup of tea. That said, this is an awesome review of these paintings and their painters. The Garden of Earthly Delights is, in my opinion, the most dreadful of these. They could be worse but I have a strange tug towards writing a story based around the painting.
EllenDean from Austin on November 02, 2010:
Fantastic list! I love the Goya.
Arthur Windermere (author) on May 26, 2010:
That's true. It's simply the most perversely imaginative image ever put to canvas.
spiderlily on May 26, 2010:
There's something both hypnotic and horrifying about the Garden of Earthly Delights
customastrocharts on May 01, 2010:
I love it!
Arthur Windermere (author) on December 15, 2009:
Zac828: Thanks for your kind words, Zac. It was indeed hard to stop, especially with the Symbolist painters. So much so that I've been considering another article just on the Symbolists that impressed me most. Glad you enjoyed the article.
Arthur Windermere (author) on December 15, 2009:
wannabwestern: I'm glad I was able to give off the illusion of being knowledgeable. But seriously, glad you liked the article. The unfortunate thing about Bresdin's work is that it's very difficult to find a decently-sized electronic copy. It's a work that needs to be seen in large, since it's so detailed. As for Luyken, you'll notice in my profile I used to be a monk, so I can sympathize with his perverse religious insanity a little--just a little.
Zac828 from England on December 15, 2009:
This is really great and refreshing to see; you've chosen some horrifying and emotional pieces by truly great artists. A great idea to gather them together and it must have been hard to stop! I'm lucky to have seen some powerful works in European cities and this hub has brought the memories flooding back. well done and thank you.
Carolyn Augustine from Iowa on December 14, 2009:
Hi again, I came back to read your full article. I felt i did you a disservice by only reading the parts I was interested in. Your descriptions are illuminating. I can't decide if I found Dante's 5th circle of hell most disturbing, or the comedy of death. Both are horrifying. The other absurdist horrors were disturbing too, of course. Your knowledge of the topic is indeed impressive. Glad I just became a fan.
The difference between Goya and Luyken's work seems that in Goyas's case, at least with the Disasters of War etchings, his work had a strong sense of irony. Each piece was labelled with an ironic and angry sentiment that underscored the inhumanity inherent in the scenes he depicted. Luyken, as you describe him, seemed to be caught up in a grotesque kind of religious rapture that was purely evil.
Arthur Windermere (author) on December 14, 2009:
Zoltak: That's cool! Not many contemporary artists admit to having these--except for Goya and Bacon--as influences. Durer and the Symbolists are my foundation as well. Now if only we could see some of your art. :)
wannabwestern: Thanks for that story. It must have been quite a powerful experience to see the Disasters of War etchings all assembled. I really should have mentioned them in my article. They are indeed quite disturbing, along the lines of Jan Luyken's work.
Carolyn Augustine from Iowa on December 14, 2009:
Arthur, I will have to bookmark this one for a thorough read. I have to confess I was looking for Goya and was not disappointed to see him as a number one choice. My husband is a museum registrar, and about 10 years ago when he was working at the Meadows Museum in Dallas they hosted a travelling exhibition of Goya's Disasters of War, a series of about 200 artworks (I think they were sketches but my memory fails me). These artworks graphically depicted people committing what would now be considered war crimes. He was a war correspondent and I think this must have contributed to his dark themes and madness later in life. It was the most moving artwork I have ever seen, because so many of his subjects were children, and it was not at all beautiful.
Ben Zoltak from Lake Mills, Jefferson County, Wisconsin USA on December 14, 2009:
Thanks for the review Arthur. It's been awhile since I've visited some of these artists' works, you've tapped into my foundation as an artist, although I don't paint anything remotely surreal anymore. Still have the visceral qualities hiding in there somewhere though!
Arthur Windermere (author) on September 22, 2009:
Nope. El Greco wasn't even considered.
halleyhoops from west palm beach on September 22, 2009:
no el greco?
Arthur Windermere (author) on August 12, 2009:
Thanks for your comment, rcisophie. That's a very good point. The Scholastic conception of beauty (proportion, harmony, and clarity, if I recall) was quite far removed from artistic practice. Of course, the most horrific of Bosch's paintings occurred in triptychs, which softened the blow.
rcisophie from Lisbon, Portugal on August 11, 2009:
Hi! Interesting hub. One of the problems in Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics is the definition of aesthetical elements and categories. Traditionally all where related to beauty, harmony and so on... but as you show here the idea that only recently the horror and darkness in art become an aesthetical element is not true. Bosch in the beginning of 16th century is a very good example. Painters as such were the mobil to rethink art because they were a big challenge.
Arthur Windermere (author) on July 28, 2009:
Thanks for the comment, FreedomChic. The Symbolists' paintings are certainly a repository of the fringe emotions and thoughts one might experience. Not a commemorative plate amongst 'em.
FreedomChic1776 on July 28, 2009:
Thanks for the hub. Most people only discuss the more traditional, fluffy, mushy, romantic, etc. type of art. I love seeing new (well, technically old) pieces that evoke strange emotions and thoughts. Number 10, 6 and 1 definitely do that for me.
Arthur Windermere (author) on July 26, 2009:
pgrundy: No need to apologize; I love attention. I'm surprised I've never heard of Patrick Harpur. He's a fascinating fellow--almost too well-read for his own good. His books now have a proud spot on my Amazon wishlist. Thanks a lot for the link.
alittlebitcrazy: Thanks for the comment! Glad you enjoyed it. Clive Barker is a good one, as is H.R. Giger. I had to leave out contemporary 'horror' artists for a variety of reasons, none of which is snobbery haha. Cheers!
alittlebitcrazy on July 26, 2009:
Captivating - truly an enjoyable hub - you've captured some greatness here! Another artist that came to mind was Clive Barker. That's horrifying stuff in it's very own class! Thanks again for sharing.
pgrundy on July 26, 2009:
Sorry if I seem to be 'stalking' your hubs today. I got back from walking my dog and read this interview I've had on hold for a few days and thought you would enjoy it. It kind of relates to some of your stuff:
Looking forward to more. :)
Arthur Windermere (author) on July 26, 2009:
Thanks for the comment, pgrundy! I'm glad you enjoyed this hub.
You're absolutely right. New Age presents itself as holistic, but the whole human experience embraces a lot more than 'sunshine, lollipops and rainbows'.
pgrundy on July 26, 2009:
This is wonderful. I really enjoyed your comments and the works themselves, and I love that you even thought to gather these together in a hub. There's something really unsettling and inhuman about light without darkness, which is what comes across in so much of the New Age stuff. Thanks for the hub.