Thursday, December 2, 2010

Connecting with the Great He-Goat

When I was younger I lived a year in the countryside of Mexico with my grandparents. The most exciting time of the day was after dinner when my grandfather would start to tell me haunting stories of creatures; stories ranging from black ghosts to the legendary la chupacabra. These stories were convincing at the time and they would often inspire my brother and me to go hunting for them.  For that reason the painting that most intrigued me from the modern art history slides was The Witches Sabbath by Spanish artist Francisco de Goya created in 1797-98. It is a lighter version of what I found from Goya’s later work in 1820, The Great He-Goat or The Witches Sabbath (El Aquelarre). It is one of the fourteen “Black Painting” he painted directly onto the walls of his home, La Quinta del Soro (Home of the Deaf or Villa of the Deaf). Made with the technique al seco, oil paints on plaster it was created when he was 74 years old. The Great He-Goat is an intense haunting image of a freighting crowd surrounding a large he-goat. Described appropriately by Fred Licht as “the most extreme manifestation of the growing misunderstanding and estrangement between modern society and the artist (Goya)”[1], this was during a freighting time in his life, where he was detached from society and dangerously ill. Linda Simmons recounts Goya’s illness as “overwhelming: he heard a constant roaring and ringing in his head; he was dizzy and prone to fainting, nauseated, and, at times, nearly blind”.[2] Goya was extremely detached from society and was afraid of eternal social separation which caused him to become rather mad. During this difficult time he continued to find a connection with the witches Sabbath but in a much darker light. His way of understanding the witches sabbath was laying out the scene on the wall of his home. He used line, light, and color in order to create the scene we examine today in order to uncover the story behind The Great-He Goat.
The most significant creature in the painting is the he-goat himself and the bold lines that outline him into the shape of the triangle, they are entirely different lines then those of the coven members, the diagonal and straight lines show strength and authority. He gives balance to the painting with most of the coven members to the right of him.  The title “el aquelarre” is a Basque word that breaks down to “field of the goat”. The small town of Basque, Spain has been attributed to having had the witches Sabbath celebrated in a field for goats where in 1610 Basque witches were reported to have been meeting before major Christian holidays. The first recount of a huge he-goat was by a young girl attending the witches sabbath in1335 at Toulouse.[3]
The only light source in the painting seems to be a fire between the goat and the coven. This doesn’t allow the viewers side of the he-goat to have any light which makes him entirely black with only one glaring eye as a feature. The coven is lit by the fire which allows details of distorted facial expressions in the crowd of witches and warlocks, until it reaches a young girl on the right who is cloaked in black, with hands in her muff. Her blank expression is the most curious thing in the painting she appears calm and observant of the sabbath that is taking place. It has been said that perhaps she is waiting to be initiated into their rites. Goya used the world of witches to denounce the degradation of humankind.[4] It was also described that the devil would be given a sacrificial gift by his witches. Either the case she would have her soul blackened, illustrating the ruin of humankind Goya struggled with. She was said to originally have been in the center of the painting but when it was removed from the wall this had changed and she now appears at far right.
The color in the painting is important because Goya turned to only dark pigments in order to create his black paintings and so the use of white and light colors such as on the small man near the devil, it seems to give him a kind of importance and unholy glow. The coven members are wearing mostly dark black and grays with a golden color that is a reflection from the fire. There is some white and a bright white cloaked warlock man who at first may appear like a child who is in fact his assistant.[5] These tones make the painting serious, dark, and give an apprehensive mood which makes you wonder what would happen in the next painting especially to the young girl. The black goat give off such a malevolent feel and the looks on the attendees faces seem as though he has the power to demolish one of them instantly and rambling from just the fact that he is present.
It seems as though Goya is drawing out the ideas and theories that ran around during the time of witches celebrating the sabbath in Basque. Stories passed around of goats, sacrifices, witches, warlocks, and hallucinations being used. The devil was said to have sexually abused the people who attended and manipulate them into doing things for him. This was Goya’s personal obsession that he never intended to be viewed by his audience. It was a much darker and haunting Goya especially in the comparison of the painting of the earlier 1798 Witches Sabbath. The Great He-Goat gives us an idea of the nightmarish images that made Goya mad during the darkest time of his life, his deep fascination that will never truly be revealed and we will be left to wonder whether this was a fantasy or something he experienced.

[1] Fred Licht, Goya, Page 204. Abbeville Press Publishers, 2001
[2] "The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters." Online Magazine: The World & I Online Magazine. Web. 01 Dec. 2009.
[3] Condendish, Richard. The Black Arts. Pan Books, 1967. Print.
[4] "Museo Nacional del Prado: On-line gallery." Museo Nacional del Prado. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. .
[5] "Museo Nacional del Prado: Enciclopedia online." Museo Nacional del Prado. Web. 02 Dec. 2009. .