It’s Halloween! Check out the 10 most terrifying works of art — if you dare
Marieke Gruwel is a master's student in the Department of Art History at Concordia.
Beheadings, cannibalism and all sorts of monsters...
Art has a long tradition of exploring things that go bump in the night.
What do Hieronymus Bosch, Artemisia Gentileschi and Andy Warhol have in common? Each has created artworks that instill fear and terror in their viewer. From beheadings to cannibalism and all sorts of monsters in between, here are some of history’s most terrifying works of art.
Herrad of Landsberg, Hell, 1167-85
Landsberg’s depiction of Hell, as illustrated in the medieval manuscript Hortus Deliciarum, is a frightening scene. People are being eaten alive, while others are thrown into cauldrons sitting above large open flames. The Hortus Deliciarum, which was sadly destroyed in the 19th century, is one of the earliest known manuscripts written by a woman.
Hieronymus Bosch, Hell, c. 1490-1510
This illustration is part of a large triptych titled The Garden of Earthly Delights. Art historians have been debating the meaning of Bosch’s painting for decades. One thing we can say for certain is his depiction of Hell is straight out of our worst nightmares.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c. 1562
Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death is a scene of total chaos and destruction. Fires emerge on the bleak, lifeless landscape while living beings flee from spooky skeletal figures. There is no doubt that in this painting, our biggest fears have triumphantly taken over.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620-21
The story of Judith Slaying Holofernes comes from the apocryphal Book of Judith in the Old Testament. Gentileschi’s painting leaves nothing to the imagination. Blood gushes onto the white bedsheets as the viewer witnesses the exact moment that Judith’s sword cuts through Holofernes’ neck.
Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781
Fuseli’s The Nightmare depicts a woman sleeping deeply with an ape-like incubus on her chest. According to medieval Christian mythology, an incubus is a male demon that preys upon sleeping women in order to engage in non-consensual sex. This work was popular when first exhibited, likely due to its horrifying and shocking subject matter.
Théodore Géricault, Heads Severed, c. 1819
Géricault created several studies of severed human limbs and corpses in preparation for his famous painting The Raft of Medusa. In this piece, we see only the heads of what must have been two decapitated bodies. Dirty and blood-stained white cloths prop the heads up, giving the viewer a glimpse into their severed necks.
Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son, c. 1819-23
In this depiction of Greek mythology, Goya has painted Saturn in the throes of eating his son. The figure has already devoured his son’s head and one of his arms, and he now proceeds to consume the other arm. And just when you thought this work couldn’t get any creepier, know that it was painted directly on a wall inside Goya’s home!
Francis Bacon, Figure with Meat, 1954
You don't have to be a vegetarian to find this painting by Bacon disturbing. Part of a large series in which the artist explores Diego Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, it shows a grotesque Pope flanked by two slabs of animal carcass. The painting's disturbing nature is heightened by the fact the main figure appears to be screaming.
Andy Warhol, Big Electric Chair, 1967
Warhol produced a series featuring the theme of the electric chair. He based these works off a photograph of an execution chamber at the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State. The eerie, unoccupied chair draws the viewer into the location of numerous controversial executions.
Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999
Is there anything that makes you shiver quite like the thought of a larger-than-life spider? If your answer is no, you are not alone — arachnophobia is common among many people. Bourgeois’ 30-foot sculpture depicts a creature from the nightmares of children and adults alike.
Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Art History.