15 of the most violent and brutal paintings in art history, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century

So much for beauty: art history has often seen fierce, violent and brutal paintings. We see in this gallery 15 of the most violent paintings in all of art history.

We have become accustomed, partly because of the excesses of media rhetoric, politics and advertising, to associating art with beauty: nothing could be more wrong. Since ancient times, art has chronicled the worst baseness of human beings: violence, various murders and killings, rapes, wars. In this new image gallery we build a small history of violent and gruesome art through fifteen works that tell us about brutality and heinousness, from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

1. Duccio di Buoninsegna, Massacre of the Innocents, from the Majesty of Siena (1308-1311; tempera on panel, 220 x 412 cm; Siena, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo)
The Massacre of the Innocents, one of the best-known episodes in the life of Jesus and particularly in his childhood, gave many artists the opportunity to pour onto canvas or panel a vast sampling of feral savagery and horrified or dismayed gazes. One of the first to offer a very bleak depiction of the episode is the great Sienese Duccio di Buoninsegna (Siena, c. 1255 - 1319), who in 1308 began painting his celebrated Maestà for the high altar of Siena Cathedral. The work has become one of the symbols of the city and is also known because the back is as extraordinary as the front: while the Maestà occupies the entire front of the work, the back is instead divided into the panels that tell the Stories of Christ. One of these is precisely the massacre: note, in particular, the monstrous detail of the tormentors thrusting their swords into the bodies of helpless children, under the terrified, bewildered and deeply troubled gaze of the mothers, and then pulling them out soaked in blood, while on the ground already scattered over a puddle of blood are the bodies of the little ones who failed to escape the massacre.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Strage degli innocenti
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Massacre of the Innocents

2. Gerard David, Judgement of Cambises (1498; oil on panel, 202 x 349.5 cm; Bruges, Groeningemuseum)
In 1498 the Dutch painter Gerard David (Oudewater, c. 1460 - Bruges, 1523) painted, on commission from the town hall of Bruges, which wanted to adorn the burgomaster’s hall with a series of panels, a diptych depicting the Judgement of Cambises. The story is told by Herodotus: Cambises II, king of Persia, had discovered that one of his judges, Sisamne, was corrupt, leading him to pass unjust judgments. Cambyses would therefore have him arrested and sentenced to death by flaying, and again according to the story, his skin would be used to line the seat on which his son, appointed judge in place of Sisamne, would take his place, so that he would be reminded every day of the end his father had come to because of his corruption. The gory scene is painted with the hints of naturalism typical of the Nordic Renaissance schools: those charged with carrying out the sentence are already at work on Sisamne’s body, with one of them finishing removing the skin from his leg (and holding the knife between his teeth), while others have just begun to open his arms and chest. The bestial violence of the scene is made all the more tragic by the impassivity of Cambises, who observes the scene, and of his dignitaries, who like him watch the whole thing without being touched.

Gerard David, Giudizio di Cambise, pannello destro
Gerard David, Judgement of Cambises, right panel

3. Niccolò Circignani called the Pomarancio, Scenes of Martyrdom (1583; frescoes; Rome, Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio)
In 1583, the Tuscan mannerist Niccolò Circignani, known as Pomarancio (Pomarance, c. 1530 - c. 1597), was commissioned to decorate the ambulatory of the basilica of Santo Stefano al Celio with scenes of martyrdom: when the artist finished his work, he had created one of the most bloody and disturbing cycles in the entire history of art. The executions of the saints are not mitigated at all; on the contrary, the most bloody and truculent details are emphasized: St. Agatha is depicted with tongs stuck in her sense, tied to a plank from which she cannot move; St. Primo is caught as the flames of his tormentors begin to burn his skin, which is already beginning to smoke; there are saints boiled alive or mauled by dogs, but the climax is reached with the martyrdom of St. Peter of Alexandria, literally torn to pieces (complete with conspicuous bleeding) by an executioner armed with a scimitar.

Niccolò Circignani detto il Pomarancio, Martirio di san Pietro d'Alessandria
Niccolò Circignani called the Pomarancio, Martyrdom of Saint Peter of Alexandria.

4. Alessandro Allori or Giovanni Maria Butteri, Caterina de’ Ricci Lands the Children of Babylon (1588-1590; oil on canvas; Florence, Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze)
Alternately attributed to Alessandro Allori (Florence, 1535 - 1607) or Giovanni Maria Butteri (Florence, c. 1540 - 1606), this painting presents a rare iconography of Saint Catherine de’ Ricci, a regular Dominican tertiary who lived between 1522 and 1590, spending almost her entire existence in the monastery of San Vincenzo in Prato, of which she was also mother superior. The saint was particularly celebrated during her lifetime since she had a reputation as a mystic and almost as a living saint, so much so that depictions of her began to spread well before her canonization (she was proclaimed blessed in 1732 and a saint in 1746), and this work was most likely painted while she was still alive. The fame she enjoyed is well discernible from this painting, which even depicts her in the guise of a saint (she has her head encircled with a halo: there is also a portrait by Giovanni Battista Naldini, who, in his lifetime, depicted her in the guise of St. Catherine of Siena) while she is hurling some children against a boulder, on which the inscription “beatus qui allidit parvulos suos ad petram” (“blessed is he who hurls his children against the rock,” taken from Psalm 137). The children are obviously an allegory of the adversaries of the Church, but the scene is striking for the mad cruelty with which the woman throws one of the little ones against the stone, while those already killed all lie on the ground, pale.

Alessandro Allori o Giovanni Maria Butteri, Caterina de' Ricci atterra i figli di Babilonia
Alessandro Allori or Giovanni Maria Butteri, Caterina de’ Ricci Lands the Children of Babylon.

5. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1617; oil on canvas, 158.8 x 125.5 cm; Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte)
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Rome, 1593 - Naples, 1654) has become almost a symbol of violent art in the seventeenth century, all the more so because the author of the painting is a woman: the scene refers to the most famous episode in the story of the biblical heroine, a Jewish leader and opponent of the Assyrian army, commanded by Holofernes. According to the biblical account, Judith is said to have pretended to be attracted to Holofernes, only to get him drunk and kill him, beheading him, with the help of her handmaiden Abra. Artemisia Gentileschi made a couple of versions of this painting: both produced in Florence, the one in Naples was painted for the noblewoman Laura Corsini (this at least according to a recent hypothesis by scholar Francesca Baldassari), while the one in the Uffizi in Florence, better preserved but a few years later, was intended for Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici. A great many scholars have related the heinous violence with which Judith decapitates Holofernes, amid splashes and streams of blood staining the sheets, to the rape the painter suffered at the hands of her colleague Agostino Tassi, and have interpreted the painting as a kind of desire for revenge: perhaps, however, this is an overly simplistic reading that does not take into account the fact that the painting falls fully within its art-historical context, where similarly gory depictions of the episode abounded (such as those by Caravaggio, Domenico Fiasella, or Bartolomeo Manfredi, with the latter making a less violent but more macabre painting due to the fact that the episode is depicted after the fact and with the headless, and still bleeding, body of Holofernes on display). Nevertheless, the force and extraordinary power of this painting, one of the most exciting of its time, remain intact.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Giuditta decapita Oloferne
Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Beheading Holofernes.

6. Giuseppe Vermiglio, Jael and S isara (c. 1620; oil on canvas, 130 x 103 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana)
During the seventeenth century there are numerous violent and heinous paintings, and one of them is Jael and Sisara by the Piedmontese Giuseppe Vermiglio (Alessandria, c. 1585-c. 1635), which tells the story of the biblical heroine Jael, who like her counterpart Judith finds herself facing the general of an enemy army: in this case it is Sisara, commander of the Canaanites, who is hosted by Jael in his tent and persuaded to rest inside the tent. Asleep, he is killed by Jael with a large sharp nail that the woman drives into his temple. There are many artists who have depicted this story (just to stay in the seventeenth century, we recall, just to stay in the seventeenth century, Artemisia Gentileschi and Jacopo Vignali), but Vermiglio’s work differs from many others because it depicts Sisara in unusual terms, that is, as he notices the presence of Jael and thus tries to avoid the heroine’s awl, but she, with her hammer, is already about to come down hard on him. The counterpart painting by Artemisia Gentileschi probably inspired Vermiglio’s work. However, we do not know the early history of this canvas, first published in 1991 and attributed to Vermiglio only in 2000 during a monographic exhibition that followed the discovery of a number of the artist’s works.

Alessandro Allori o Giovanni Maria Butteri, Caterina de' Ricci atterra i figli di Babilonia
Alessandro Allori or Giovanni Maria Butteri, Caterina de’ Ricci Lands the Children of Babylon.

7. Gioacchino Assereto, Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew (ca. 1630-1635; oil on canvas, 120 x 170 cm; Genoa, Museo dell’Accademia Ligustica di Belle Arti)
Of the painters in Genoa who came under the influence and fascination of Caravaggio’s art, Gioacchino Assereto (Genoa, 1600 - 1650) was among those who took Caravaggio’s realism to its most extreme consequences. Evidence of this is his Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, now in the Museo dell’Accademia Ligustica in Genoa: it is one of the crudest depictions of the martyrdom of the saint, who was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and who, according to tradition, suffered martyrdom in an unspecified location in the Middle East, skinned alive. In certain works we see him while, resurrected or in glory, carrying his skin (the Sistine Chapel’s St. Bartholomew is famous), and usually painters who wanted to avoid particularly merciless scenes focused on the first moments of martyrdom, when the executioner had just pulled out his knife. Assereto has no such problems and captures the scene at the moment when one of the two torturers pulls a flap of skin from Saint Bartholomew’s leg, uncovering the bleeding muscles.The seventeenth century abounds with scenes like this, but the eagerness and sadism of Assereto’s henchman have very few equals.

Gioacchino Assereto, Martirio di san Bartolomeo
Joachim Assereto, Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew.

8. Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson (1636; oil on canvas, 236 x 302 cm; Frankfurt am Main, Städelsches Kunstinstitut)
The story of the biblical hero Samson is told in the Book of Judges: a man of proverbial and impressive strength, which was granted to him directly by God, he had married a Philistine woman, but the marriage was against the wishes of her parents, due to the fact that Samson, a Jew, was naturally an enemy of the Philistine people (who, likewise, did not want the marriage). After some time, the woman’s father gave Samson’s wife to another man, and in revenge Samson devastated the camps of the Philistines, who reacted by killing his wife and father-in-law, who were set on fire. Samson, at the height of his wrath, grabbed a donkey’s jawbone and with only that weapon wreaked havoc on the Philistines, killing 1,000 men. After this episode, however, the hero met Delilah, another Philistine, who betrayed him by having him captured: the Philistines blinded him and enslaved him. Finally, finding himself serving in a house where the leaders of the Philistines had gathered, with his prodigious strength he collapsed the building, killing everyone inside, besides, of course, himself (“may I die with the Philistines” is the phrase that, in the Bible, Samson utters before having the building ruined). In this painting preserved in Frankfurt, Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden, 1606 - Amsterdam, 1669) depicts the blinding episode: some Philistine soldiers are holding him down, another is threatening him with a pike, and one is plucking out his eye with a dagger, while he is writhing in pain. The violence of the episode is also emphasized by the chiaroscuro with strong gradations, typical of the Rembrandt of the 1930s.

Rembrandt, L'accecamento di Sansone
Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson.

9. José de Ribera, Apollo and Marsyas (1637; oil on canvas, 202 x 255 cm; Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts)
The myth goes that the Sylenus Marsyas, skilled with the flute, had wanted to challenge Apollo, god of the arts and music, convinced that his talent with the musical instrument was even superior to that of the deity. Apollo accepted the challenge (according to other versions of the myth, it was Apollo who wanted to challenge Marsyas for his struts instead), and the muses were to judge the contest. Of course, Apollo won the contest and, to punish Marsyas’ pride, decided to skin him alive. The episode, a symbol of punished pride, among those in mythology is one of the most depicted in the history of art, and in the seventeenth century, as the taste for realistic scenes spread, depictions began to become more and more violent and to linger on the grim details of the scene. In this sense, one of the most effective achievements is José de Ribera’sApollo and Marsyas (Xàtiva, 1591 - Naples, 1652) painted in 1637 and preserved at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. Ribera, in the same year, made another version of the painting, now housed in Naples, but the Belgian one is certainly more violent because the artist lingers more on the detail of the flayed leg: as per typical iconography, the god is seraphic and impassive in inflicting the terrible punishment, and his delicate, effeminate beauty clashes terribly both with the horrifying detail of Marsyas’ leg and with the latter’s appearance, caught screaming and struggling with all his limbs in pain.

José de Ribera, Apollo e Marsia
José de Ribera, Apollo and Marsyas.

10. Felice Ficherelli, Tarquin and Lucretia (c. 1640; oil on canvas, 117 x 163.5 cm; Rome, Accademia di San Luca)
Felice Ficherelli (San Gimignano, 1603 - Florence, 1660) narrates in this painting an event from Roman history, the rape of Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last king of Rome, Tarquinius the Proud. The woman, because of the outrage she suffered, decided to take her own life, and this would be the episode that would start the rebellion against Tarquin the Superb, which ended with the end of monarchical Rome and the beginning of republican Rome. Ficherelli’s is one of the most violent depictions of the episode, so much so that the painting could rise to symbolize the fight against violence against women: Lucrezia is naked and defenseless on her bed, attempting a timid defense but nothing can against the brute force of Sextus Tarquinius, who to the humiliation of rape adds the dreadful threat of a dagger. As typical of works of the time, the work is set inside a seventeenth-century dwelling. The painting is one of Ficherelli’s masterpieces: long thought to be the work of Guido Cagnacci, it was first assigned to a painter from the Tuscan area by Corrado Ricci in 1915 (the scholar formulated the name of Giovanni Bilivert), while Mina Gregori is credited with ascribing it, in 1960, to the hand of Felice Ficherelli, for an attribution that has never since been doubted.

Felice Ficherelli, Tarquinio e Lucrezia
Felice Ficherelli, Tarquinio and Lucrezia

11. Francisco Goya, Saturn Devours His Children (1820-1823; oil on plaster transported on canvas, 143.5 x 81.4 cm; Madrid, Prado)
The god Saturn (Cronus for the Greeks), king of the gods, having learned from his parents Gaea and Uranus that one of his children would oust him, had the idea of devouring them so as not to allow any of them to oust him from the throne. His destiny was fulfilled, however, because Jupiter (Zeus) managed to secretly escape the massacre (Saturn’s wife Rhea secretly begat him) and, having become an adult, returned to defeat his father. Francisco Goya (Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes; Fuendetodos, 1746 - Bordeaux, 1828), in one of his best-known and most heinous paintings, depicts the god as with an animalistic gaze he is in the grip of a terrible cannibal’s fury and has already begun to devour one of his sons (his head has already been severed clean off and he is caught eating his right arm). All this happens in darkness: the work is part of the cycle that has gone down in history as the Pinturas Negras (“black paintings”), because they are all characterized by the use of very dark colors. The black paintings originally decorated a house known as “Quinta del Sordo,” just outside Madrid, which was purchased by Goya in 1819. Moreover, interpretations have been given for this painting that go beyond the mere mythological episode and its more traditional readings (Saturn is also the god of time and the myth is a metaphor for time devouring everything): in particular, it could be an allegory of madness, or even a sarcastic reading of the political situation of the time (“Saturn,” wrote art historian José Rogelio Buendía, “is a symbol of absolutist Spain devouring its own children”).

Francisco Goya, Saturno divora i suoi figli
Francisco Goya, Saturn Devours His Children

12. Karl Pavlovič Brjullov, Ines de Castro at the moment of being sacrificed (1834; oil on canvas, 213 x 290.5 cm; St. Petersburg, Russian State Museum)
The Russian painter Karl Brjullov (St. Petersburg, 1799 - Rome, 1852) narrates in this painting one of the darkest episodes in Portuguese history, the murder of Ines de Castro and her children at the behest of her father-in-law, King Alfonso IV, who frowned upon her marriage to the infante Don Pedro, heir to the Portuguese throne and future King Peter I. This was in 1355: Alfonso IV, incited by some enemies of the noble Castro family, suggested that he eliminate the woman and her children, for fear that they might oust Peter in the future. Thus, in January 1355, while her husband was away, Alfonso ambushed the woman, going, together with the noble accomplices, to the monastery of Santa Clara in Coimbra, where the woman lived with her children. Alfonso manifested his intentions and to no avail Ines de Castro’s pleas: the three nobles pounced on them, killing them with knives. Peter, extremely furious over the murder of his wife, moved a war against his father, which was resolved with a peace: however, as soon as he ascended the throne in 1357, Peter I took revenge by having the executioners of the woman, who had died in her early thirties. Brjullov depicts the moment when Ines de Castro and her sons are forcibly led before her father-in-law by the three nobles, all ready, with bestial expressions, to pounce on them with daggers. The story, wrote art historian Elena Lissoni, “lent itself with its dark implications to the staging of extreme passions and feelings, here rendered through a language of great dramatic emphasis, to which the artist’s frequentation of musical circles was certainly no stranger. [...] The canvas made a strong impression on critics, who readily recognized in it the character of novelty, both in the theme, dominated by horror, and in the means of expression.”

Karl Pavlovič Brjullov, Ines di Castro nel momento di essere sacrificata
Karl Pavlovič Brjullov, Ines de Castro at the moment of being sacrificed

13. Otto Dix, The War (1929-1932; mixed media on panel, 204 x 468 cm; Dresden, Galerie Neue Meister)
Mutilated corpses, rubble, ruined landscapes, soldiers totally deprived of their humanity, bare trees, and dramatic mourners are the protagonists of Otto Dix’s (Gera, 1891 - Singen, 1969) triptych of war, a work that well depicts the fierce drama of World War I. The artist began painting it in 1929 and finished it in 1932: the war had been over for more than a decade, but it was still very much alive in the memory of the artist, who dedicated several works to the conflict (in particular a series of fifty etchings, known as Der Krieg, “the war,” the same title as the triptych, which caused bewildered reactions when it was published in 1924). The scene reads from left to right, with a column of German soldiers leaving the battlefield through the fog to show the viewer the result of the war: a totally devastated and horrific landscape. With, at the top, a skeleton hanging from a tree, pointing a finger at what the soldiers did, in imperishable memory.

Otto Dix, La guerra
Otto Dix, The War

14. Carlo Levi, Concentration Camp or The Dead Women (Il lager presentito) (1942; oil on canvas, 50 x 61 cm; Rome, Fondazione Carlo Levi)
The great painter and writer Carlo Levi (Turin, 1902 - Rome, 1975) experienced firsthand the harshness of the fascist regime, since he was arrested in 1934 on suspicion of anti-fascist activity and, arrested a second time in 1935, was sentenced to confinement in Lucania, in the village of Grassano and then in that of Aliano: from his experience in Basilicata would be born the celebrated book Christ Stopped at Eboli. After being pardoned, Levi moved to France in 1936 and, shortly after Italy entered World War II, returned to his native village to participate in the clandestine struggle against fascism. He lived through the entire war period working underground and, although he was of Jewish descent, he never experienced the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. This, however, did not prevent him from making, in 1942, Dead Women, a work depicting the pale and tried naked bodies of some of the women killed during the war: the work reflected what the artist felt about the events of the war, and shortly thereafter, when the tragic reality of the death camps was discovered and shown to the whole world, Levi’s painting would take on the sinister sense of foreboding.

Carlo Levi, Campo di concentramento o Le donne morte (Il lager presentito)
Carlo Levi, Concentration Camp or The Dead Women (The Present Lager).

15. Aligi Sassu, Civil War (The Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto) (1944; oil on canvas, 116 x 200 cm; Rome, Galleria Nazonale dArte Moderna e Contemporanea)
The canvas by Aligi Sassu (Milan, 1912 - Pollença, 2000), who in addition to being a great artist was a proud anti-fascist, so much so that he was arrested for some time in 1938, painted this work out of the blue in 1944 in the aftermath of the massacre at Piazzale Loreto, a shooting of fifteen partisans and antifascists that took place in the Milan square in August 1944, and which was ordered by SS officer Theodor Emil Saevecke (who, by the way, never faced any kind of trial for his war crimes at home: he was sentenced, in 1999, to life imprisonment by the military court in Turin, but was never extradited). Sassu painted his work in total hiding and managed to exhibit it only at the 1952 Venice Biennale: on that occasion it was seen by Giulio Carlo Argan, who had it purchased by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome, where it is still located today. The episode of the shooting is rendered by Sassu after the events are over: the mangled bodies of the partisans shot are shown to the viewer covered in blood, in an almost unreal atmosphere.

Aligi Sassu, Guerra civile (I martiri di piazzale Loreto)
Aligi Sassu, Civil War (The Martyrs of Piazzale Loreto).