The art world is full of beautiful paintings. Just ask any art history major. You have The Starry Night by Van Gogh, Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, The School of Athens by Raphael, The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, and so much more. Art can be a beautiful thing. For many, aesthetics is everything. Art and beauty go hand in hand because art can be extremely pleasing to the eyes.
But other times, art isn’t exactly pleasing to the sight. Sometimes it can be a little creepy, a little unsettling, and sometimes just downright disturbing. Whenever we see a piece that we find somehow disturbing, we may wonder to ourselves, “Who in the world would make something like this?” It’s true that art can be stunning and gorgeous, but it can also be violent and sinister. Maybe it reveals an ugly truth about life that we don’t like to talk about. Maybe it’s too dark and depressing. Or maybe, it uses images that scare us down to our very souls.
There are many paintings out there that are full of images that scare us down to our very souls…paintings that scare us and terrify us, but we can’t turn away from them. This list is full of them. If you’re in the mood for a good scare, then check out this list of 15 famous paintings that will scare the living daylights out of you. Warning: This list contains disturbing content. Proceed at your own risk.
15. Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781
The Nightmare is probably aptly named, considering how it much it horrified viewers at the time they saw it. The oil painting shows a woman in deep sleep stretched across a bed in a room bathed in white light. There’s an apelike demonic figure perched on her chest while a horse with glowing white eyes looms from the background. The creature sitting on the woman’s chest is an imp or an incubus, a spirit which sits on people while they’re sleeping and has s*xual relations with sleeping women. Fuseli’s painting suggests the latter but another common interpretation is that the woman is dreaming; hence, the name of the painting. Critics and viewers were frightened by the artwork but were also captivated by it. Its popularity lead Fuseli lead him to create three other versions of the painting.
14. Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden Of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505
Pretty delightful painting, huh? The picture shown above is just a small section of The Garden of Earthly Delights painting, and I’m pretty sure the piece didn’t get its name from that part of the painting. The painting is a triptych, a work of art that is divided into three sections that are hung together. The left panel of The Garden shows God offering Eve to Adam, the middle panel is a panorama of nude figures conversing with one another or engaging in other activities, and images of enlarged fruit, uniquely-styled formations, and bizarre-looking animals, and the right panel is a hellscape which illustrates the horrors of hell. The artwork has been interpreted in various ways, but a popular interpretation is that Bosch is cautioning people on the dangers of life’s temptations. Please note the large eagle wearing a pharaoh-like headdress eating a naked dude who has birds flying out of his butt.
13. Gustave Moreau, Diomedes Being Eaten By His Horses, 1866
You probably didn’t think horses were capable of ripping a man apart, did you? This particular painting shows a scene from Hercules’ eighth labor. For one of the 12 labors Hercules needed to complete, he had to capture four horses owned by King Diomedes, the king of Thrace. But these weren’t just any kind of horses. These horses were man-eating horses, quite wild and uncontrollable, and could only be tamed by their owner, Diomedes. According to one version of the legend, Hercules wasn’t aware of the wild nature of the horses, and so he left his favored companion, Abderus, to handle the creatures while he fought against Diomedes. Abderus was tragically eaten, and in revenge, Hercules had Diomedes devoured by his own horses. In the painting, you can see Hercules in the background calmly looking on as the king is brutally torn apart by the animals.
12. Peter Paul Rubens, Saturn Or Saturn Devouring His Son, 1636
Well, he’s not winning any Father of the Year awards anytime soon. Here’s a brief mythology lesson for you. The Saturn painting is a depiction of a significant event in Greek and Roman mythology. Saturn, the Roman name of Cronus, the king of the Titans, was jealous of Uranus’ (his father) power and so he overthrew him. Everything was nice and peaceful during the Golden Age (the name given to the period during which Saturn ruled) until Saturn learned that his future sons would grow up and overthrow him like he did his father. To prevent the prophecy from happening, Saturn devoured each one of his children after birth, and the artwork gives a glimpse of the cannibalism in play.
11. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620-1621
Here’s an example of women taking initiative. Judith Slaying Holofernes is an artistic depiction of the climax of the apocryphal book of Judith. The Book of Judith, a book that only appears in the Septuagint and the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament, follows the story of Judith, a courageous widow who nearly singlehandedly overthrew the Assyrian general, Holofernes. In order to stop Holofernes from destroying her hometown, Judith used her beauty to sway the general and gain access to his tent. After he falls asleep drunk, Judith beheads the general, with some assistance from her maidservant. It’s probably safe to say that, according to the painting, it wasn’t a quick decapitation, seeing as how Holofernes seemed to have woken up in the middle of the decapitation and is struggling against the maidservant.
10. Hans Memling, Triptych Of Earthly Vanity And Divine Salvation, circa 1485
Like The Garden Of Earthly Delights above, Earthly Vanity is another example of a triptych. The central panel shows a nude woman gazing into a mirror. Flanking the central panel are panels of Death and the Devil to the left and right, respectively. The image of the beauty, pride, and indulgence of earthly pleasures is intended to be a foil to the terrifying images of death and hell. In Hell, you have the horned and hideous-looking Devil with a man’s face looming from his torso walking over the backs of the condemned who are being eaten by a gargantuan monster who has flames in his mouth. Memling based the artistic vision for his painting on the concept of “Memento mori,” a Latin phrase which means “Remember your mortality.”
9. Francis Bacon, Study After Velázquez’s Portrait Of Pope Innocent X, 1953
To be fair, Francis Bacon had nothing against the former Pope. He just really wanted an excuse to use those sorts of colors for his artwork. Study After Velázquez’s Portrait Of Pope Innocent X is a distortion of Portrait of Innocent X which was painted by Diego Velázquez in 1650. Bacon never saw the original piece but he did see countless reproductions of Velázquez’ painting in various books. Bacon’s Pope is seen screaming from his chair but he is “silenced” by the drapes surrounding him. The dark colors of the art piece lend an eerie and nightmarish atmosphere to the painting. Bacon produced multiple versions of this painting until the mid-1960’s, but he didn’t think positively of any of the pieces in the series afterward. He called them “silly” and said he wished he had never done them.
8. Titian, The Flaying Of Marsyas Or The Punishment of Marsyas, 1570-1576
So much for letting someone off easy. The story goes like this: A satyr named Marsyas foolishly challenges the god, Apollo, to a musical contest on the reeds. Apollo accepts the challenge, but on one condition—the victor is allowed to dispense punishment on the loser in any way he wants. Marsyas loses the contest, and Apollo inflicts probably one of the worst punishments of all time on him—flaying Marsyas alive. The satyr’s skin is stripped from his body, inch by painful inch. In the painting, we see a little dog licking at the blood flowing from Marsyas’ body. What’s even more disturbing besides the painting is how the scene is described in the story the painting is based off. “Blood flowed everywhere, his nerves were exposed, unprotected, his veins pulsed with no skin to cover them. It was possible to count his throbbing organs, and the chambers of the lungs…”
7. William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil, 1850
Here’s another charming artistic depiction of Hell. Dante and Virgil was inspired by a brief scene in Inferno, the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14-century epic poem, Divine Comedy. Inferno chronicles the journey of Dante through the nine circles of Hell as he is escorted by the ancient Roman poet, Virgil. The location of William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting is the eighth circle of hell, where falsifiers and counterfeiters are sent. Dante and Virgil are watching two condemned souls locked in battle. The man biting the other man’s neck is Gianni Schinni, who is guilty of impersonating a dead man so he could lay claim to his inheritance. The man getting his neck bitten is Capocchio, a heretic and an alchemist. A man lies on the ground unmoving and a winged demon can be seen in the foreground watching Dante and Virgil.
6. Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, 1819-1823
This painting is the stuff of horror films. Much like Reuben’s Saturn painting, Goya’s painting depicts the Titan king cannibalizing one of his own sons. However, Goya’s version does it in a much more brutal way. Saturn has already bitten off and eaten his son’s head and quite possibly his son’s right arm. Either that or the right arm is folded in front of the body out of view. Saturn already took a chomp off the left arm and is in the process of taking another bite out of it. He looks very much like a deranged psychopath, his mouth gaping widely, and his eyes bulging out like some kind of lunatic. Many art historians believe that Goya decided to make such a violent painting because was troubled over his mortality and his rapidly deteriorating physical health. Plus, he was resentful of the civil strife happening in Spain.
5. Salvator Rosa, The Temptation Of St. Anthony, 1645
Imagine seeing something like that flying at you. The Temptation of St. Anthony is one of the many paintings that were inspired by the legend of St. Anthony. Hieronymus Bosch, Paul Cézane, Salvador Dalí, and many other painters produced their own versions, and all of them are pretty haunting and twisted in their own way. The legend of St. Anthony says that Anthony the Great, a devout Christian, went on a pilgrimage to the desert to live as a monk. Along the way, he was confronted by all sorts of wicked temptations and an assortment of hideous demons who just wouldn’t leave the poor man alone in peace. Rosa’s version of the legend of St. Anthony shows Anthony on the ground at the mercy of one of the demons, holding a cross out in front of himself in an effort to protect himself.
4. Francisco Goya, The Disasters Of War, 1810-1820
Francisco Goya sure liked making brutal-looking artworks, didn’t he? The Disasters Of War is a series of 82 prints produced over a ten-year period which highlighted the, you guessed it, horrors of war. The picture above is plate number 39 titled “Grande hazaña! Con muertos!” which translates to “A heroic feat! With dead men!” The print shows three naked corpses secured to a tree stump, each one of them castrated. One corpse had his arms removed and was beheaded, his head skewered on a tree branch. Print 39, like the other prints in the series, showcased the brutality and the inhumanity of war that left a searing mark on the 20th century. Altogether, the prints present a rather bleak and nihilistic outlook on the consequences of war.
3. Theodore Gericault, Heads Severed, 1818
It’s probably safe to say that Theodore Gericault had a certain fascination with the dead. His Heads Severed painting is exactly what it says—a picture of two severed heads. During his lifetime, Gericault established relationships with hospitals and morgues so he could examine what happens to the body before and after death. He was also an avid patron of programs offered by local morgues which checked out human remains to art students for anatomical studies, much like checking out library books. Gericault collected heads and various body parts in his art studio/”body farm” and watched them slowly decay, expressing his observations onto the canvas. The heads featured in Heads Severed are just two of the disembodied heads Gericault painted, an explicit take on the gruesome nature of death.
2. H.R. Giger, Necronom IV, 1976
Look familiar to you? Look closely at the elongated, cylindrical skull. Now does it look familiar to you? This artwork was the inspiration for the “Alien” or the “Xenomorph” from the Alien franchise. H.R Giger was a victim of night terrors and his Necronom IV artwork drew inspiration from his struggles with the sleep disorder. The Swiss surrealist’s take on why he made the alien with such a bony and hard appearance is that the alien is armoring itself to protect itself and through this, Giger is showing his need to feel protected. Film director and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon saw Giger’s designs and decided the creature would be the perfect fit for his vision of the Alien movie. Giger was hired to work on the movie and he re-designed the alien’s appearance for the film, designing the egg, chestbuster, and adult versions.
1. Salvador Dali, The Face Of War Or The Visage Of War, 1940
I can’t be the only one who feels their skin starting to itch when they look at this painting. The Face of War shows a barren desert landscape with a giant disembodied head in the center of the painting. The face is shriveled up and appears sorrowful. Identical faces are in the main face’s eye sockets and mouth, and then there are more faces in their eye sockets and mouths, infinitely going on and on. Large serpents surround the main face and bite at it. Salvador Dali made this painting after the Spanish Civil War had ended, in response to the horrors of warfare. He saw an attempt to show the ugly nature of war and to make a point that death is infinite.