10 Most Scary Paintings

Gabriela Hurtado 30 January 2021 min Read

Paintings can represent both real and unreal themes and scary paintings are a mixture of both. Among all the emotions that make up the human psyche, fear is the most genuine evidence of man’s nature. Love corresponds to an advanced state of evolutionary development and the neural connections associated with sexual reproduction. However, fear creeps into the present through traces of a more primitive past.

The goal of fear has transformed over time. Fear of medieval witches or of God’s punishment does not correspond to present-day reality. In fact, the contemporary definition of fear fits with the most human existential anguish, which has gone from a philosophical problem to an unquestionable reality.

We associate fear with violence. It is an indivisible feature of nature and at the same time, of death. Hence violence is a creative act as powerful as love. But, when it is united with fear, the result is paralyzing. When fear overtakes him, man is reduced to his most vital appearance, naked of all that he acquires through movement.

These are ten paintings that bring to the canvas the relationship between violence and terror that reduces man to the minimum:

Monstrous father

10 Most Scary Paintings: Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son. Saturn is represented as a desperate giant old man with long white hair, with his eyes out of their orbits, eating his son with a marked expressiveness in his face that emulates madness. The scene denotes a strong violence, which can be seen in the mutilated and bloody body of the son, a victim of cannibalism.
10 Most Scary Paintings: Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819–1823, Prado, Madrid, Spain.

The set of fourteen scenes known as Black Paintings that decorated the Quinta del Sordo provide us with the bloodiest and most disturbing art. Quinta del Sordo was the country house on the outskirts of Madrid where Goya lived his last years in Spain. The painting above depicts Cronus, or Saturn in Roman mythology. He has taken one of the newborn children of Rhea, his wife, for fear of being dethroned by one of them. It is believed that Goya was impelled to paint this horrifying work by both a fear of being devoured by the absolutist terror that followed the Trienio Liberal and by the fall and execution of Riego.

Beheaded in a crypt

10 Most Scary Paintings: José Casado del Alisal, The Legend of the Monk King. King Ramiro II of Aragon in front of the nobles shows with one hand the severed heads. One head hanging of a rope as a bell, while the others are scattered on the ground.
10 Most Scary Paintings: José Casado del Alisal, The Legend of the Monk King, 1880, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain.

This painting is also known as The Bell of Huesca. The artist, José Casado, painted this canvas during a stay in Rome. It is one of the most truculent paintings in the collection of the Prado. The scene depicts the bloody episode in which Ramiro II the Monk, king of Aragon from 1134 to 1157, shows the nobles the head of Bishop Pedro de Lucria hanging from a rope like a clapper. Pedro had instigated a revolt and the 12 leaders shown to the upper right had rebelled against Ramiro’s authority. In reality, the Hall of the Bell, where the legend places these facts, is in a crypt of the palace of the Kings of Aragon. It is now the home of the Museum of Huesca.

Army of skeletons

10 Most Scary Paintings: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death,. It is a panorama of death: the sky is darkened by smoke from burning cities, in the background a sea full of shipwrecks; on the shore there is a house, around which an army of dead people is gathered. There is a cross, solitary and impotent in the center of the painting, and Death advances with battalions of skeletons; their shields are coffin lids and lead people to a coffin that is a tunnel decorated with crosses; a skeleton on horseback destroys people with its scythe. Everywhere helpless men are attacked; terrified they flee or try in vain to fight. On the left there is a wagon with skulls, which no doubt will later form the army of the dead. Above them, some skeletons ring a bell warning of the end of the world. In front, on the lower left side, the king lies, dressed in his cape with ermine turns and with the scepter in his hand. Peasants, soldiers and even nobles and even kings, all trapped by Death. A little more toward the center of the foreground, a dog sniffs the face of a child, dead in his mother's arms, also fallen. Some corpses have already been shrouded and one of them lies in a coffin with wheels. Aspects of daily life in the mid-sixteenth century are observed, clothes are drawn in detail, and hobbies such as card games.
10 Most Scary Paintings: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562, Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Rarely has a canvas shown the terror that death instills. Here we see a barren landscape in which scenes of destruction are happening. An army of skeletons, commanded by death on the back of a starving horse, gives itself up to a throat-cutting worthy of George A. Romero.

Bloody revenge

 Peter Paul Rubens, Tereus' Banquet. At the end of the dismal banquet, Filomena (his sister-in-law) enters the room with the head of little Itis (son of Tereo and Procne) in her hands while Procne reveals the whole story. The fury of the women and the gesture of despair and rage of Tereo is manifested, holding her sword and throwing the table, where the remains of the banquet were, with one kick. The scene takes place in Tereo's palace, so some architectures appear in the background and an open door with a servant snooping around. The gestures and expressions increase the drama, so it resembles a theatrical performance.
10 Most Scary Paintings: Peter Paul Rubens, Tereus’ Banquet, 1636 – 1638, Prado, Madrid, Spain.

A barbarian king, two sisters, a rape, a bloody revenge. This is what the tragic story of Philomela is about. It is one of the least known myths of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Tereo, husband of her sister Procne, rapes her and cuts out her tongue. However, he can’t stop Filomena from telling about the barbaric act, nor the revenge of both. In this canvas Rubens shows us the scary moment when Procne throws the tyrant’s bloody head at Itis. All this, after having served him his son for dinner.

Welcome to hell

10 Most Scary Paintings: William Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil. In hell accompanied by his master Virgil, Dante advances through the third belt of the circle. The artist brought sinners to the fore by eating each other. His perspective is unusual and beautiful; it is hard to believe that there are defects in these bodies. Bouguereau portrayed human emotions in dynamics, beautiful anatomy and facial expressions. Dante and Virgil are outside observers. Bougreau placed them behind the scenes of violence. Dante's laurel wreath, his clothing and the shining garments of his companion, are all from the world of earth, pure and contrasted with the mud of hell. To give the plot a "hellish" mood, the author drew a gray demon with a red glow flying behind Dante and virgil with a smile of satisfaction
10 Most Scary Paintings: William Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

Bouguereau used a passage from Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece as inspiration to create a work as realistic as it is raw in its content. As Dante and Virgil pass through the eighth circle of hell, they encounter two men fighting fiercely. One man is on his knees. At the same time, he receives the punishment of another who sticks his knee into his back and bites his neck in fury.

Morbid face

10 Most Scary Paintings: Ken Currie, Gallowgate Lard. A blurry white face with clown-like makeup, no cheerful colors. only white foundation and blood on the lips that paint your his lips in red . Deep dark circles under the eyes. The background is black and the light that illuminates him is little
10 Most Scary Paintings: Ken Currie, Gallowgate Lard, 1960, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK.

Ken Currie, the Scottish painter, was obsessed with morbid faces and the effects of illness, old age and the passage of time on bodies. Here he has produced one of the most enigmatic self-portraits ever painted. A whitish face contrasts with the dark background. The lower part appears stained red and the nose severely battered. However, it is the deep black eyes that are the most terrifying detail of the work.

Obsession with black

10 Most Scary Paintings: Odilon Redon, The Smiling Spider. A tarantula-like spider of gigantic proportions has eyes and a mischievous smile. The artist creates a hybrid being, humanizing the bug by looking for monstrosity in an ironic and morbid way.
10 Most Scary Paintings: Odilon Redon, The Smiling Spider, 1881, Louvre, Paris, France.

It was during his most acute period of pictorial experimentation that Redon placed himself in the opposite position to his post-impressionist counterparts. At one stage he went through a black period. It was then that he captured elements that demonstrate the sinister nature of humanity in contrasts that were unusual for his time. The Smiling Spider is part of his obsession with black. In fact, Redon believed that “there is no more beautiful color in the palette”.

Inspiration from a morgue

Théodore Géricault, The Severed Heads. On the left side is the female head which has closed eyes and bright white skin, while on the right is the male head with open mouth and open eyes which look at the viewer freely. Serrated, rough spots on the neck illustrate the cruel and torturous death these characters have agonized at the guillotine. Loose lines for the visualization of face and tissue contribute to the dramatic effect of the work.
10 Most Scary Paintings: Théodore Géricault, The Severed Heads, 1818, The National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden.

Here we see pain and death that includes severed parts of the human anatomy. The artist used to go to a psychiatrist’s asylum and to the morgue to take inspiration for the works. Adding to that darkness, we learn that he painted them at night.

Scary head of Medusa

Peter Paul Rubens, Medusa. Medusa's head on the ground after her throat was cut. Eyes open while all sorts of creatures come out of the freshly amputated head: snakes, insects, worms, arachnids, reptiles... Even a friendly salamander and a deadly scorpion.
10 Most Scary Paintings: Peter Paul Rubens, Medusa, 1618, The Moravian Gallery in Brno, Brno, Czech Republic.

Caravaggio captured the famous monster in Greek mythology. Eight years later, Rubens immortalized Medusa in his own interpretation. Significantly, we see the moment when Perseus beheaded her and fell to the ground, and the vermin jumped in all directions.

Joker smile

10 Most Scary Paintings: Giovanni Francesco, Child with a drawing. a boy with long red hair dressed as a woman, shows with his right hand a child's drawing that reflects a person. His look and disconcerting smile, looks like a fake smile and makes this work chilling and scary
10 Most Scary Paintings: Giovanni Francesco, Child with a drawing, 1480–1555/1558, Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, Italy.

A redheaded boy with a scary smile. A strange combination somewhere between the scary Joker and the Mona Lisa. He is looking at passers-by and holding a sheet of paper with a mixture of pride and shyness.

The development of art based on horror has an important seat or origin in the painting that developed in the Middle Ages. At that time religious paintings used the figure of the devil and hell as a means of generating fear and creating taboos. They did this to prevent behaviors rejected by the morality of the time. From that time on, some artists made an effort to capture diabolic forms in their portraits and sculptures. In fact, their work was conceived precisely with the idea of generating horror in the observer. Over time, however, artists appropriated these forms to demonstrate that the grotesque, the violent and the unsightly can also give rise to works that are sublime and beautiful. And in addition, they could be suggestive in the eyes of the viewer.

I hope you have found as much beauty in horror as I have with these scary paintings.

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