When we think of witches and the supernatural, our mind might not go directly to the sunny country of Spain. But in the sixteenth century, in the region of Navarre there were whispers of magic brewing. In these mountains a dark event is said to have occurred, more sinister than other cases of witchcraft. It revolved around one woman’s mystic connection to the devil.
What happened in Zugarramurdi is an episode we should not forget. It belongs to some of the most embarrassing and horrid moments in civilization. To disregard situations like this inevitably leads to them reoccurring. The best reminder of the event was made by the famous painter Francisco de Goya in his piece titled Witches’ Sabbath.
In 1608 the King of France, Henry IV, a devoted and pious warrior of the faith, lead a crusade with the sole purpose of eliminating any trace, act, or suspicion of forces unaffiliated to the Heavens. Anything that could indicate any relationship to the darkness or witchcraft was submitted to a trial of knights and judges. This religious and politically motivated situation made many women flee, scared of being accused for the most minimal reasons, if any.
Several of these young women reached Spanish territory, particularly Zugarramurdi. But, to their misfortune, witchcraft panic had spread to this territory. Their foreign language, clothing, and search for medicinal plants gave way to suspicion, rumors, and accusations. This slowly began to create an atmosphere that paved the way for the Inquisition itself to get involved.
In June of 1610, the inquisitors of the Logroño Tribunal sentenced 29 accused of being guilty of witchcraft. On November 7 of the same year, eleven alleged witches were burned in the main square, despite five of them already being dead because of torture or suicide.
Years later, 187 to be exact, Goya rescued the written account that described this horrible moment of both the Church and humanity. Experts believe the artist was making a commentary about the clergy, ignorance, and superstition.
Inspired by the folktales, narrations of the event, and his own ideas on what actually happened, Goya created this work of art and filled it with visual details we should not overlook.
If we observe the painting, we see a male goat, representing the devil, under the moonlight. We also see a prairie where, according to Mongaston’s accounts, the witches were caught in the act. The animal reaches towards two witches who offer children to him. They represent two of the women from the trial, Maria Presona and Maria Joanto. Both were forced to confess murdering their children to please the devil.
To the left, hanging from a stick, there are several emaciated skeletal children. These are the graphic results of how the confessions claimed that witches sucked the blood of their young through the genitals and anus, leading to the children’s deaths. Goya captured with mastery and sensitivity what the Inquisition pushed through torture in his series of the Black Paintings.
By doing this depiction, he kept alive the memory of one of the darkest, most tragic episodes in humanity.
Translated by María Suárez