Deliverance From the Nightmare

John Henry Fuseli’s 'Nightmare'
October 1, 2019 Updated: October 15, 2019

A nightmare can be an overwhelming experience. It can be so lucid as to be daunting, even horrific and terrifying. It can cause one to wake in a panic, in cold sweats, and with the heart racing; we awaken relieved that it was “only a dream.” 

John Henry Fuseli, an 18th-century German Romantic painter, attempted to capture the atmosphere of the nightmare in his 1781 painting with that very name. His “The Nightmare” was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1782 and created quite a stir. 

According to David Blayney Brown in his book titled “Romanticism”: 

“The Romantics believed that dreams were a second life, lived on another plane; they connected the dreamer with eternal unities lost to the rational mind, and transcended time by recalling a spirit past or foretelling the future.”

Fuseli has depicted a certain type of second life here: a dark, oppressive one. Using his study of classical art and folk literature, Fuseli gave form to the horror of nightmares yet refused to provide a definitive interpretation of this painting.

Interpreting ‘The Nightmare’

On top of the dreamer’s chest sits an impish figure shrouded in shadow. This figure is often referred to as an incubus. In Latin, “incubus” means nightmare and “incubare” means to lie upon, weigh upon, and brood upon. The incubus is a type of demon that weighs upon a dreamer’s body and can even cause a sense of oppression and suffocation.

The incubus also tempts the dreamer with sexual advances. According to Walter Stephens in his book “Demon Lovers,” some traditions hold that repeated sexual intercourse with an incubus (or its female counterpart, succubus) will result in devastating consequences for the dreamer, including physical illness, mental illness, and death.

The horse in the background is also shrouded in shadow, like the incubus. The shadowy horse may be an addition to the painting as a play on words: mare. The mare that appears from the shadows at night refers both to night and mare in the word “nightmare.” Mare or “mara” also, however, refers to a sleep demon that rides people’s chests in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic traditions.

Surmounting Temptation and Oppression

But what can this painting mean for us today? How might we interpret it in such a way that we turn our gaze inward and look closely at ourselves and who we are as people?

The dreamer is dressed in white and reclining on her bed. Her white dress may represent her purity. Heavy with sleep, her head and upper torso hang off the edge of the bed. With her arm raised overhead and her head cocked restfully to one side, she possesses a somewhat similar pose to images of the sleeping Ariadne

Sleeping_Ariadne
A copy of the second-century original of “Ariadne,” from the School of Pergamon. Marble. Vatican Museums, Vatican City. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. She fell madly in love with Theseus and helped him defeat the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth. Theseus, however, abandoned her on the island as she was sleeping. The god Dionysus awakened her, rescued her, and married her.

In Fuseli’s painting, the weight of the incubus presses down on the dreamer’s chest, but the white of her dress suggests that she maintains her purity despite its presence. Her face is the face of a dreamer and not the face of someone who is experiencing either terror or sensuality.

Is it possible that she has, in her dream, overcome the oppression and the sexual temptation inaugurated by the incubus?

If we look at the incubus, it seems almost as if it has lost interest in the dreamer, perhaps because of its lack of success. It has instead stopped attempts to victimize and seduce the woman and has turned its head to look outward. 

Does it scan the room in search of a more willing victim, weak enough to succumb to its temptations and oppression? Does it look at us?

How we respond in dreams can say a lot about who we are as people. Our actions and thoughts, even in dreams, may reveal our character. I ask myself upon seeing this painting, “Am I strong enough, is my character solid enough, to resist the temptation and overthrow the oppression of the nightmare? Can I, like Ariadne, be awakened and rescued by God?”

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we will explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).