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Five of the Most Terrifying Artworks in History

Posted by J Meyers on

Art history contains a wide spectrum of topics from beauty and refinement to fear, death and terror. When thinking of the Art of Goya, Caravaggio, and Hieronymus Bosch one may quickly recall historical masterpieces renowned for their magnificence, but these famous Artists also produced some of the best known "Dark Art". Living through tumultuous times filled with religious famine, war and plague; Art history is not without its dark masterpieces. Below we have chosen five (or six) of the most well-known works of darkness.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

"The Nightmare" by Swiss Artist Henry Fuseli focuses on the looming terror that comes only at night. First shown at the Royal Academy exhibition in London the work shocked and intrigued viewers with its female depiction and incubus-type creature. "a mare or “mara, [is] a spirit that, in heathen mythology, was related to torment or to suffocate sleepers" Source Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). The painting is a haunting depiction of the night.

The nightmare painting The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli

The Nightmare, John Henry Fuseli Source

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi  

A scene from the Old Testament depicting the heroic act completed by Judith to save the Israelites from the approaching Assyrian army. We just had to show both Caravaggio's and Artemisia Gentileschi's distinct paintings of the same name. Caravaggio's rendering shows the bloody beheading in colorful detail - the second the glimmering blade strikes its mortal blow. Caravaggio used his trademark chiaroscuro to heighten the intense scene. Artemisia Gentileschi's rendition of the story displays a deeper aggression and violence - showing a grisly dramatic moment with extreme force. It should be noted that in Gentileschi's work Holofernes bears a resemblance to Agostino Tassi who raped the Artist when she was only 17 years old - a sense of Artistic revenge can be felt when viewing the work.

Judith Beheading Holofernes  Caravaggio

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1534, detail via wikimedia Collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica at Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Artemisia Gentileschi judith most terrifying painting

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620–1621). Collection of the Uffizi Galleries source

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya

Well known for his "Black Painting" series - Goya was no stranger to the macabre. The Spanish court painter who constructed often historical weighty works, also created this startling collection in his later years. The paintings where each done directly on Goya's home walls and never meant for public display. Possibly the most famous dark work in the series is Saturn Devouring His Son which features a gruesome retelling of the Roman (Originally Greek) myth of a God eating his own son for fear of overthrow. Truly a most horrifying masterpiece!

Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco de Goya

Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco de Goya Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain - Source

The Garden of Earthly Delights

"The Garden of Earthly Delights", a beautiful triptych painting by Hieronymus Bosch showing paradise, earth and Hell in tandem - our sinister interest here is the Artists Hellfire panel. While little is known about Bosch's life, and interpretations are many, there is no denying the fantastic dark world created in this piece. The landscape is filled night hues, burning cities and demonic imagery of all kinds. Painted between 1490 and 1510 the work is a northern renaissance masterpiece that inspired generations of Artists to portray the darker side of their imaginations.


dark art painting hellfire scary artist

Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights” Hell panel c. 1500-1505 Image source now housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain


J Meyers

@ Dark Art & Craft, print collector and Graphic Artist from Ohio, US.



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