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The horror and mystery behind 'the Black Paintings'

Towards the end of his life, Francisco Goya began painting terrifying scenes directly onto the walls of his house.

Wikimedia Commons
  • The Black Paintings stand out in art history for their dark composition and themes.
  • The biggest mystery, though, is that Goya painted them directly onto the walls of his home and never told anybody about them.
  • With such little information, all we can do is speculate about the 14 horrifying Black Paintings.

By 1819, the painter Francisco Goya had been through quite a bit. He had witnessed the chaos of war when Napoleon invaded Spain and the chaos in Spain as its government bounced back and forth between a constitutional monarchy and an absolute monarchy. He had become deathly ill a number of times, occasionally fearing he was going mad. One of these illnesses had left him deaf. Increasingly bitter about humanity, afraid of death and madness, Goya withdrew into a villa outside of Madrid called la Quinta del Sordo, or the Deaf Man's House.

In the villa, Goya would go on to paint some of his darkest and strangest works. They were painted directly on the walls of the house, and Goya didn't mention them to anybody as far as we can tell. They were pessimistic paintings that differed wildly from his earlier works, apparently created for his own sake. He never named them, but art historians have given descriptive titles to the works. Collectively, they are known as the Black Paintings.

The tenebrous meaning of the Black Paintings

Two Old Men

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The 14 Black Paintings are almost invariably painted with dark colors — they're not called the Hot Pink Paintings after all. The human figures are painted in an expressionistic style that depicts humans as pseudo-monsters, like the blurred, deformed faces in Women Laughing or the whispering goblinoid in Two Old Men. Goya had seen the cruelty that human beings inflicted on one another, and the faces of his human subjects reflect this interior monstrosity.

Aside from this, interpreting many of the Black Paintings is challenging. Goya hadn't intended to display them publicly and offered no explanation of their subjects. Many of the paintings' backgrounds are morphing shades of black or brown, lacking details we could use to orient ourselves, and even the titles are the inventions of art historians.

Duel with Cudgels

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The painting with the clearest meaning, Duel with Cudgels, shows two peasants fighting each other with their legs stuck in a quagmire, unable to escape from one another except by beating their opponent to death. Most scholars agree that this represents Spain's violent civil war at the time: stuck in their home country, the only way forward for each side was victory.

But to understand the meaning behind The Witches' Sabbath, where a group stares in horrified fascination at a demonic goat-man, or Atropos (the Fates), where four jet-black figures hover above a landscape, you would have to ask Goya.

Goya's most horrific painting

Saturn Devouring His Son (detail)

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The most famous of the Black Paintings is, without a doubt, Saturn Devouring His Son. For the unfamiliar, Saturn was a Roman god, one of the titans that came before the traditional gods who lived on Mount Olympus. He had come to power by overthrowing his father, Caelus, but it had been prophesied that one of his children would do the same to him. To avoid this, he consumed his children after they were born.

Roman mythology say that Saturn swallowed his children whole — later, they spring from his stomach after Jupiter (or Zeus in the Greek equivalent) escaped being eaten and fed his father a poison to make Saturn vomit up his siblings. Most paintings of this scene depict Saturn greedily swallowing his children whole.

In Saturn Devouring His Son, however, Saturn viciously chews on his partially eaten child — there's blood everywhere, and his child is clearly dead. The most striking detail, however, is Saturn's distress. Prior paintings of this subject show Saturn unsympathetically. But in Goya's version, he is crouched in the dark with a crazed, anguish look on his face. In Saturn Devouring His Son, the titan seems devastated to be eating his children to survive and looks as though he's gone mad.

It's easily the most terrifying painting in the collection. We can speculate that it deals with Goya's own fear of madness and death, but again, there's no record of what the painter truly intended. The mystery of what this meant to Goya is part of what has captured art historian's attention for a century.

Controversy

Atropos (The Fates)

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the macabre attraction of this story, some scholars don't believe that Goya was truly the original artist of the Black Paintings. First, there is a stark difference between the Black Paintings and Goya's previous art. This can be explained away by the idea that the Black Paintings were private, experimental work; since they were not commissioned by the aristocracy, Goya was free to experiment.

But there are additional details that suggest Goya did not paint these images. La Quinta del Sordo was originally a one-story home, though the Black Paintings covered the walls of the first floor and a second floor that was added later. Historians have recovered renovation documents from Goya's time in the villa, none of which mention the addition of a second story. It's possible that the second floor was added after Goya's death — meaning the second-story Black Paintings would have been added afterwards as well.

Some theorize that this means Goya's son Javier created the Black Paintings. Javier's son, Mariano, would later inherit the house. Mariano had money problems, so its feasible that he attributed the Black Paintings to the famous Goya rather than to Javier to get a better price when he sold the villa.

This is a hotly contested theory, however. The artistic merit of the paintings makes them valuable regardless of the creator, and whoever that was — whether Goya or Javier — had no intention of making them public. Ultimately, they are dark, private ruminations whose murky history adds to, rather than subtracts from, their power.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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