15 of the Most Unsettling and Gruesome Paintings in Italian Art History

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The most brutal paintings in Italian Art History

We’ve made a list of ten of the most violent and terrifying art pieces in Italian art. 

Since ancient times, art has depicted the worst instincts of mankind: violence, rape, massacres, torture, wars, and murders of all kinds. 

We have selected some works that depict brutal and heinous scenes depicted by artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Caravaggio, and Gioacchino Assereto.

The inspirations for these paintings come primarily from the Bible, hagiographies of Christian saints and martyrs, or the Greek classics.

Related articles: 42 astonishing Dante’s Inferno illustrations by Gustave Doré, The origins of the Story of Romeo and Juliet

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Massacre of the Innocents (Strage degli innocenti), 1308

The Massacre of the Innocents is an episode recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18), in which Herod the Great, king of Judea, ordered the execution of all male children. According to the Gospel, Jesus escaped the massacre because an angel warned Joseph in a dream, ordering him to flee to Egypt; only after the death of Herod did Joseph return, settling in Galilee, in Nazareth. Duccio di Buoninsegna, one of Siena’s most famous painters, began to paint the Maestà for the high altar of Siena Cathedral in 1308. The altar is decorated with panels that tell the stories of Christ. One of these is the massacre of the innocents. The painting does not spare violent and gruesome details, such as the blades of the torturers thrust into the bodies of defenseless children, under the terrified gaze of their mothers, while the bloody bodies of other children are piled on the ground.

Niccolò Circignani detto il Pomarancio, Church Martyrs, 1583

Niccolò Circignani (Pomarance, 1530 approx. – 1597 approx.) was an Italian painter. He was commissioned depicting scenes of church martyrs, with help from Antonio Tempesta for the church of Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio: twenty-four scenes depicting the history of St. Stephen and his cult. The cycle begins with the Crucifixion of Jesus, followed by the stoning of St. Stephen, with depictions of the torture of the apostles in the background.

Charles Dickens expressed horror at the spectacle in this church, calling it a: “damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, … by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. […] Such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep …”

Alessandro Allori o Giovanni Maria Butteri, Caterina de’ Ricci atterra i figli di Babilonia, 1588-1590

This painting presents a rare iconography of Saint Catherine de’ Ricci, an Italian Dominican Tertiary sister who lived between 1522 and 1590, spending almost her entire life in the monastery of San Vincenzo in Prato, of which she was also Mother Superior. The saint was particularly famous during her lifetime, having a reputation of a mystic and of a living saint, so much so that depictions of her began to spread well before her canonization. This work was probably painted while she was still alive. 

The painting depicts her as a saint hurling children against a rock, on which is inscribed “beatus qui allidit parvulos suos ad petram” (“blessed is the one who seizes his infants and dashes them against the rocks“, Psalm 137). The children are an allegory of the adversaries of the Church, but the scene is striking for the cruelty with which the woman throws one of the children against the stone, while those already killed all lie on the ground. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1614-1620

Artemisia Lomi Gentileschi (Rome, July 8, 1593 – Naples, about 1656) was an Italian painter of the Caravaggio school. She was the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi painter native of Pisa. She is considered among the most accomplished seventeenth-century artists.

Judith is thought to be a self-portrait of Artemisia. In 1611, Artemisia was raped by a colleague of her father, Agostino Tassi, when she was only seventeen. A neighbor—an older woman named Tuzia—let Tassi into Artemisia’s home through an adjoining door. There, Tassi raped Artemisia, while she called out for help. Artemisia’s father, Orazio Gentileschi, sued Agostino Tassi for taking his only daughter’s virginity. On the bracelet Judith wears is a depiction of Artemis. The intensity of the scene is highlighted by the dripping blood soaking the white bedsheets and the man’s eyes wide open — conscious, but helpless.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Jael and Sisera, 1620

The painting depicts the moment in which Jael, a Kenite woman, is about to kill Sisera, a defeated Canaanite general. While he is asleep, Jael drives a tent peg through his temple; an act that earned Jael praise for her courage in the biblical text.

Gioacchino Assereto, The Philistines Gouging out Samson’s Eyes, first half of 17th century

Gioacchino Assereto (1600 – 28 June 1649) was an Italian painter of the early Baroque period active in Genoa in the first half of the 17th century.

Gioacchino Assereto, David with the Head of Goliath

Gioacchino Assereto, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew , 1630

Assereto paints the scene of the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew at the moment in which one of the two torturers tear a strip of skin from Saint Bartholomew’s leg, revealing the bleeding muscles.

Caravaggio, Medusa, 1597

Caravaggio was an Italian painter active in Rome for most of his artistic life. Caravaggio made dramatic use of chiaroscuro that came to be known as tenebrism. The painting depicts the severed head of Medusa, a mythical creature in ancient Greek mythology. Perseus, son of the Greek god Zeus and princess Danae, decapitated Medusa using a shield given by Athena. Caravaggio plays with the concept by replacing Medusa’s face with his own, as an indication of his immunity to her dreadful gaze.

The painting depicts the severed head of Medusa, a mythical creature in ancient Greek mythology. Perseus, son of the Greek god Zeus and princess Danae, decapitated Medusa using a shield given by Athena. Caravaggio plays with the concept by replacing Medusa’s face with his own, as an indication of his immunity to her dreadful gaze.

The 20th-century art historian André Berne-Joffroy stated: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”

Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John, 1608

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, located in the Oratory of St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta, is his largest ever work. “Death and human cruelty are laid bare by this masterpiece, as its scale and shadow daunt and possess the mind,” British art critic Jonathan Jones said. The painting had been commissioned by the Knights of Malta as an altarpiece.

source: 1, 2, 3

Bonus

Marco D’Agrate, Saint Bartholomew

Marco Ferrari d’Agrate, better known as Marco Agrate (1504-1574), was an Italian sculptor. His most famous work is the statue of San Bartolomeo scorticato, made around 1562. The statue is located in the Duomo of Milan. What looks like a cloak, lying on his shoulders, is his skin, flayed from his body. Saint Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, flayed alive for his Christian faith.

topics: famous dark paintings, weird paintings by famous artists, famous paintings, scariest paintings in art history, Italian paintings

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