The art history is full of dark themed paintings, as the death and horror were always motifs that intrigued humankind. The main examples of terrifying and bizarre artworks of the famous artists dating from the period of the Renaissance when the dark artistic expression freed from the strict Christian dogma but maintain the religious themes as well as classical mythology as the source of the inspiration and allegory. Depicting of the biblical scenes, full of violence and passionate sacrifice with its embodiment in real human bodies built the tradition of dark paintings which lasts to the contemporary art. From the great body of work with the morbid and obscure thematic, we made this disturbing chronological selection of important and unforgettable masterpieces dealing with the horrific aspects of human existence and imagination.
Featured images: Caravaggio – Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1534, detail via wikimedia; Francisco Goya – Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823, detail via wikimedia; Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-1505, detail via gospelofjohn; Peter Paul Rubens – Massacre of the Innocents, 1611–12, detail via wikimedia; Peter Paul Rubens – Massacre of the Innocents, 1611–12, detail via wikimedia; Salvador Dali – The Face of War,1940, detail via wikimedia; Titian – The Flaying of Marsyas, 1570-1576, detail via wikimedia
Hans Memling - Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation
Hans Memling was German Renaissance master whose work was exceptional to its time. Although the themes of biblical allegories were usual for the 15th century, his artworks contained strong erotic sentiments and truly horrifying images of death and deathly sins. His Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation was part of the series that also includes the Allegory of True Love and the Allegory with a virgin. It was a home mobilliar painting, which is meant to remain open and strengthen moralizing values in everyday life by reminding people on horrors of hell.
Featured image: Hans Memling – Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (front), 1485 via wikimedia
Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights
Garden of Earthly Delights is triptych painted by Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch, but even though it depicts heaven, earth and hell, it is named after the central and the largest panel – the most intriguing and most controversial but also not the longest period of the human existence, the human life on earth, and it presents avant-garde vision of the surrealistic fantasy and vivid hallucinatory scenes that are melted together in this jouissance and horror world. The three planes of the human condition are hierarchical structure consisted of the highest plane of godlike moral norms, human conscious acts and organized life, as well as the world of the subconscious fantasies, fears, passions and morally and/or socially forbidden joy. Biblically posed and accordingly to the values of its time, this painting shows human fate which undoubtedly led from the paradise lost across the vale to the abyss of hell. Its terrifying allegory is everlasting “Memento Mori” and for five hundred years it doesn’t stop fascinating and frightening the spectators.
Featured image: Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 via wikimedia
Caravaggio - Judith Beheading Holofernes
The painting Judith Beheading Holofernesfrom 1598–99 is Caravaggio’s interpretation of the biblical note of deuterocanonical Book of Judith, at the time – popular parable from the Old Testament about women hero which saves her people, by decapitating their enemy’s leader, Assyrian general Holofernes. Caravaggio chose to focus on the most dramatic part of the story, the very moment of the murder. On the staged scene, from the black and shady background, characters of Judith and her made arise to separate Holofernes’ head from his body. The most terrifying part of the painting is not the detailed depiction of the perpetration of crime, but the display of the conflicting emotions at the Judith’s face, which demonstrates at the same time heroic firmness and inevitable feeling of intense disgust, which embodies psychological ambivalence and true horror.
Featured image: Caravaggio – Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1588-89 via wikimedia
Titian - The Punishment of Marsyas
The Punishment of Marsyas or The Flaying of Marsyas is Titian’s last known work, based on Ovid story of Apollo’s severe infliction to the satyr who challenged the god to a musical contest. The god’s revenge was cruel and gruesome, as he decided to flay Marsyas alive, stripping his flash. With his painting mastery and his forensic eye, Titian visually corresponded to Ovid’s detailed explanation of this horrible torturing scene, depicting every detail of the very moment of flaying, accompanied by decadence of music playing, festive atmosphere of lust and ennobled cruelty of ancient gods, while passion of Marsyas metaphorically resembles early Christian martyrs.
Featured image: Titian – The Punishment of Marsyas 1570-1576 via wikimedia
Peter Paul Rubens - Massacre of the Innocents
The biblical motif of the Massacre of the Innocents was the subject of two paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, but the first one is deeply disturbing and the later is more sublime version of the same story. The inspiration for the painting was the real political context of the Calvinist atrocities against eight thousand of citizens in Antwerp. The first painting was lost for many years and discovered at the end of the seventeenth century. Besides the depicting the massacre, the emotional drama and detailed study of the body parts added the horror aspect to this baroque masterpiece.
Featured image: Peter Paul Rubens – Massacre of the Innocents 1608-1611 via wikimedia
Theodore Gericault - Preparatory Paintings for the Raft of the Medusa
Théodore Géricault is well known French Romantic painter and the auteur of the famous Raft of the Medusa. The series of the preparatory paintings for his master piece, were naturalistic renderings of the morgue scenes of human remains in different stages of decomposition. His bizarre practice of stashing the abandoned and rotten corpse parts under his bed and at his atelier is far more terrifying and disturbing than his visual explorations. The subtle play between live and dead body parts, as well as the chiaroscuro effects that slowly fades into complete darkness makes his painted sketches almost as famous as his final work.
Featured images: Théodore Géricault – Heads Severed, 1810; Théodore Géricault – Morbid Anatomy, 1810; Théodore Géricault – Raft of the Medusa, 1810 via wikimedia
Francisco Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son
The Spanish painter Francisco Goya was master of horror, as he decorated his own house in Manzanares near Madrid with the series of morbid paintings also known as Black Paintings. One of the images he placed in interior of the living room, dealing with his haunting fears of death, was the disturbing image of the titan Saturn devouring one of his sons. Cruelty of the mighty ancient god is unspeakable, as Goya portrayed him as mad man with erected penis that is possessed with a fury and revenge against the innocent baby. Many of the interpretations of the Saturn Devouring His Son are focused on the artist’s inner conflicts between old and young age, as well as the disturbing relationship with his own son and the metaphor of the revolution eating its children.
Featured image: Francisco Goya – Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819–1823, detail via wikimedia
Vincent Van Gogh - Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette
One of the rarely mentioned horror artworks of Van Gogh’s oeuvre is his painting Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, part of the studies of skeletons from his Antwerp period. In the tradition of everyday allegoric paintings of Renaissance, it carries a message of Memento Mori within the post-impressionism, and it is considered as a personal reminder on the harmful effects of smoking for the artist himself, as he was a keen smoker and frail at the same time. The ambivalence of the death and death causing human practices is the most terrifying aspect of this even humorous painting.
Featured image: Vincent Van Gogh – Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, 1885–86, detail via wikimedia
Salvador Dali - The Face of War
Salvador Dali’s painting The Face of War is surreal vision of the war trauma and horror and is frequently interpreted as premonition of the World War II, as it was painted in period after Spanish Civil War and just before the war breaks in Spain again. The focus of this surrealist painting is giant skull lying at the unidentified desert paysage, with the identical faces filling mouth and eye holes. Like within the optical illusion, skulls are multiplying in the face holes to infinity and produce feeling of eternal continuity of death horror, surrounded by serpents creeping around the empty and abandoned landscape. The emptiness and pessimism of this painting revolves the real sentiments of people exhausted by never ending war destructions in Europe.
Featured image: Salvador Dali – The Face of War 1940, detail via wikimedia
Francis Bacon - Screaming Pope series
The various depictions of the Screaming Pope were created as a detailed study of the Velasquez‘s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and took almost twenty years of Bacon’s work. The first registered version Head VI is dating from 1949, although is known that artist started study in 1946, while he was in France. The paintings display not only homage to the Velàsquez work, but the impressions on the famous Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin and the artist’s comments of the wars and horrors of the twentieth century, showing the image of pope as the screaming head of the person executed on the electric chair which makes haunting impression on every spectator.