Francisco Goya’s paintings of witchcraft are recognizable to many in and out of the art world. The images play upon well-known and accepted tropes of witchcraft; old crones bent over the lifeless bodies of young children, the worship of Satan in the form of a black goat, as well as the witches’ flight. They play into the centuries-long assumptions about witches and the beliefs many held that led to the atrocious witch trials throughout Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The are paintings show women, young and old, as the easily corrupted subjects of devilry and witchcraft. And yet, their original owner and patron was a noble, highly educated, socially involved woman; María Josefa Pimentel, the Duchess of Osuna. Why might a woman such as her be so interested in acquiring six works on the subject of witchcraft?
Throughout his career, Goya enjoyed wide acclaim and worked primarily for royalty and nobility. In his later career, Goya moved away from many of these patrons (although still remained connected with the Duke and Duchess of Osuna who were early supporters of him) and many of his works turned to criticize contemporary Spanish society. In light of this shift, some have considered Goya’s series of works on witchcraft as a criticism of the reinstatement of the Inquisition and the corruption of clergy and society or as a look at aristocracy’s interest in superstition and irrationality (like the works of Durer and Baldung Green in the 16th century). These interpretations fail to take in to consideration the role of the patron – particularly the role of a woman – and how looking at the patron may offer us commentary on the issue of female sexuality and women’s position in 18th century Spanish society.
In most of the images of witchcraft created by Goya, his primary subject is the female witch. Literature on the widespread witchcraft trials which occurred in Spain during the 17th century made reference to both male and female witches, but Goya’s subjects are primarily female and lean heavily on the sterotype of the female witch. Common tropes, like those also found in the works of Durer and Baldung Green, show the women as sexually promiscuous and violently rejecting motherhood. In The Spell, one figure is holding a basket of children, presumably referencing the belief that witches killed and consumed children while in Witches’ Sabbath, women appear in various stages of undress and two of the women appear to offer children, one appearing almost skeletal, to the goat (a representation of Satan) in the center of the circle. During this time, women’s sexuality was considered a major threat and many still believed women’s sexual appetite was insatiable and easily corruptible. This threat could be lessened by the confined of marriage, although many men still feared their wives would not adhere to the expected roles of an obedient wife and mother. The idea of the witch was understood as a terrifying and real threat to the fabric of society – if women could not be controlled, society itself would descend into mayhem. Yet, Goya’s depiction of witches is not their downfall or destruction but rather a celebration of them at their full power – performing spells, gathering for Sabbath, and communing with the Devil. Why might a noble woman such as the Duchess of Osuna choose to not only commission these paintings, but display them in her private chambers for her own personal viewing and pleasure?
The Duchess of Osuna was embodiment of rejecting the establishment and expectations of women in Spanish society. She surrounded herself with intellectuals, discussing art, culture, politics and social reform. Her and her husband were vocal about their thoughts on education and advocated for the importance of the parents’ role in their children’s education. Furthermore, she made no effort to disguise her sexuality – she often enjoyed the company of other men and was seen with male escorts at public events. Highly educated, opinionated, and connected, the Duchess of Osuna represented the very downfall that the witches threatened. And she wasn’t alone in this either.
During the 18th century, while most women were viewed only for their ability to be a mother and a wife, women of nobility began to claim power by rejecting the expectations placed upon them. They rejected the formality of noble society and adopted the lifestyle of the majas – lower class women renowned for their beauty and their salacious behavior. This adoption of the majas lifestyle created a life for women of nobility to live without obstacles. They were outspoken, they made eye contact with men, openly spoke with them without embarrassment or shame, and proudly displayed themselves for admirers. As a woman who adopted this type of lifestyle, the Duchess of Osuna may have commissioned Goya’s paintings of witches as a celebration of witches as women who rebelled against the repressive patriarchal society and reclaimed their power.
If we look at the massive growth in interest in witches and witchcraft in the 21st century, for many women especially, this idea still rings true. The image of the (female) witch represents someone who operates outside the constraints of patriarchal society, who may be more connected with their sexuality, with nature, and with themselves and for many women, this figure is a major symbol of empowerment.