The media is often criticized for showing violent and disturbing imagery. Movies, TV, video games, tabletop RPGs, comic books, and various other things have all gone through periods where they’re blamed for exposing children to dark and unsettling things. But as these fine art examples prove, violent and disturbing imagery is nothing new.
(Obviously, this article contains some disturbing content.)
1. Peter Paul Rubens – Massacre of the Innocents
Painted in 1611, Massacre of the Innocents is Rubens’ interpretation of Herod’s order to kill every young male in Bethlehem, as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. Featuring nude men ripping babies out of the arms of their mothers and then murdering the children in front of them, the painting is certainly not for the squeamish.
2. Théodore Géricault – Anatomical Pieces
This is but one of a series of works featuring disembodied body parts (including a painting of a pair of severed heads, equally as unsettling as this one) painted by French artist Théodore Géricault. The most disturbing part is that all the paintings were based on real model remains Géricault acquired from the Paris Morgue.
3. Andy Warhol – Big Electric Chair
Andy Warhol is most famous for his pop art pictures of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, but he also dabbled in some darker works, including his chilling piece, Big Electric Chair. The painting is based on a photograph of the former execution chamber at Sing Sing prison in New York. For more daring readers, Warhol also released artworks featuring police photos of suicides and car fatalities. Feel free to look those up on your own.
4. Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Triumph of Death
An army of skeletons attacks peasants and royalty alike in Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death. Every inch of the painting presents some new horror committed by the army of death, and many easily missed details can be seen by looking at a full-sized representation of the piece. Although it’s commonly mistaken as being a depiction of the Black Plague, it was actually painted over 200 years later.
5. Odilon Redon – Smiling Spider
If you’re arachnophobic or just generally not a fan of small, many-legged critters, you might want to avoid some of Odilon Redon’s works. This is just one of a couple of paintings displaying the emotions of a weirdly human-faced spider. Even if you’re okay with spiders or downright love the little guys, this thing is still creepily unsettling.
6. William Adolphe Bouguereau – Dante and Virgil in Hell
Although it shares traits common with contemporary vampire stories, this painting by Bouguereau is 50 years older than even Stoker’s Dracula, and is essentially an exact interpretation of an event described in Canto XXX of Dante’s Inferno. While touring the eighth circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil look on as Capocchio, a heretical alchemist, is bitten on the neck during a fight with Gianni Schicchi, a con artist who stole a dead man’s inheritance.
7. Heironymous Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights
This is but a detailed view of just one part of Bosch’s famous Garden of Earthly Delights. The original is a triptych–a single work split among three panels–and the section here is merely from the bottom-right of the right-hand panel. Like Bruegel’s Triumph of Death, the numerous details in this work really benefit from a high-resolution image. (Warning for readers with slower connections: That file is nearly 100mb in size.)
8. Francisco Goya – Saturn Devouring His Son
In Greek mythology, the titan Cronus (Saturn in Roman texts), fearing that he would be overthrown by his children as he had usurped his own father, began swallowing each of them whole. (They’re later purged, still alive, by Zeus.) However, in Goya’s take on the tale, painted as a mural on the wall of his own house, a deranged-looking Cronus violently consumes them piece by piece instead.
9. Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare
Fuseli’s most famous painting, The Nightmare, may not seem creepy in the traditional sense. The incubus, by today’s standards, looks a little like a cartoonish gremlin, for example. But the dream-like, surreal quality of the piece has kept its legacy alive. Even during the artist’s lifetime, the work was so popular that he created an even creepier alternate version.
10. Giovanni Boldini – Spanish Dancer at the Moulin Rouge
While Boldini is primarily known for his portraiture, he also did paint some original works. It may be hard to see what’s creepy about this particular work at first. It helps to know that the title is sometimes pluralized and called Spanish Dancers at the Moulin Rouge. If that’s not doing it for you, look at the hand over the dancer’s shoulder at the left side of the painting and follow it right.
11. Caravaggio – Judith Beheading Holofernes
In the deuterocanonical Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, Judith charms Holofernes with her beauty, gets him drunk, and then decapitates him, just like an episode of Game of Thrones. While the story has inspired hundreds of artists throughout history, Caravaggio’s is easily one of the most gruesome interpretations.
12. Salvator Rosa – The Temptation of Saint Anthony
According to a biography of St. Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony was attacked and killed by demons in a cave on his trip across the Egyptian desert, only to later be revived. When he re-entered the cave, the demons turned into monstrous creatures who attempted to kill him once more. While this is a very popular subject for artists throughout history, Rosa’s take, especially on the forms of the demons, is very surreal and nightmarish.
13. Francis Bacon – Painting (1946)
Described as either one of the greatest painters of the 20th century or a complete madman, depending on who you ask, Francis Bacon’s work was nothing if not creepy. Painting, containing various images reminiscent of a butcher shop, was created completely by accident, according to the artist himself. Originally intended to be a chimpanzee standing in tall grass and a bird landing nearby, Bacon said that he then unintentionally painted what you see above.
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