The witchcraft art of David Teniers (the younger).

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Teniers was an enormously popular and long-lived genre painter (1610-1690), chiefly active in the middle years of the 17th century. Amongst the types of subject he did were paintings of witches. His studio would then assist him in creating versions of a popular painting.

I acknowledge here the generous help of Jane P. Davidson, author of The Witch in Northern European Art 1470-1750 (Luca Verlag, 1987) and of David Teniers the Younger in gathering images for this webpage and ascribing them correctly.

Teniers' art represents something that can be taken to be quite different to the sternly ferocious engravings which illustrated demonological tracts: these paintings are witchcraft as entertainment. They seem to me good visual equivalents to The Late Lancashire Witches. There is the same effect of a deliberate anthology of witchcraft motifs, or of typical materials quoted from all the sources. The zoomorphic spirits which are terrifying and nightmarish visions in Bosch have become appealing oddities (like the spirits in the shape of cats, etc, which might sing in a Jacobean witchcraft play). The witch is rather less the outsider, than the housefrau; indeed, it has been supposed that the youthful witch in Teniers' most famous image was modelled by his own wife, Anna, daughter of Jan Breughel I:

Teniers' original

This is a variant of the picture, perhaps not by Teniers himself:

Sabbath, teniers

Here, the more youthful woman is apparently being inducted into witchcraft by the older woman, whom we might readily suppose to be her mother. They sit within a magic circle on low chairs, holding books, with further books of magic open on the tabel in front of them. In appearance, they are impeccable Dutch bourgeoises, respectably dressed, the older woman properly pious. Gathered around them, and viewed without alarm by the inductee, are gangs of zoomorphic spirits, some avian, many small rodents. Some have peasant garb, but one wears a friar's habit and cowl. Bats, flying reptiles and demonic fish (serras, one ridden by a clothed rat) fill the murky air. Illumination comes primarily from a large black candle held by a spirit with an animal skull as its head, from a wand held by a small spirit whose talned foot hold the larger grimoire open, and candles mounted in the besoms (witches brooms). Further light comes from the fireplace, with its inevitable cauldron on the flames, and, above the chimney, a small 'hand-of-glory', each finger faintly aflame. Here another young/old pairing of witches sees a naked witch about to take flight up the chimney, following a spirit cat or fox. The older adept reads a final spell prior to take-off, and is either pushing off her apprehensive tutee with a hand on her buttock, or putting on the last magical ointment. A zoomorphic spirit provides music with a pipe stuck up its nose (Teniers repeats that motif).Prominent in the picture is a horse's skull, lacking the lower jaw, but equipped with a living eye. The magical practice involves a magic circle, a dice, carafes of liquid, an egg, a knife and fork stuck into the floor, and an incense-burner or salt-cellar. The knife has been taken to be the witch's ceremonial 'athame' or black-handled knife, but in the company of that new early modern luxury, an eating fork, looks more like cutlery

Version of Teniers

The version above, from Teniers' workshop, reverses the composition. The spirits are fewer in number - frogs, birds, demonic fish, an owl. Once again, light comes from a large black candle, held by a zoomorph in a friar's cowled habit. Another witch with a wierd hairstyle adds something to a wide cauldron, a small spirit holds up a hand-of-glory to illuminate her work. At the fireplace, a naked witch is readied for flight. A goat is silhoetted, the creature on the broom going up the chimney seems to be a racoon. A diminutive nose-piper provides the music.

Teniers, witches

This third version (above) is essentially the same, but allows a view outside to witches dancing in a circle. This painting may be by Teniers' father, David Teniers I.

another by teniers

This fourth version (above) features only one young witch, but a very elaborate magic circle appears on the floor. The demon in the shape of an ape-like bat is impressive.

More Teniers

In this copy (above) after a Teniers picture, witches are out by moonlight gathering materials. One digs at the base of a gallows, where the mandrake was supposed to grow: the tiny figure standing in front of the lantern is a very anthropomorphic mandrake root. The other witch holds the black candle. Candles in reversed besoms again provide light. The hanged man is more apparent in this engraving by Aliamet after Teniers:

engraving after Teniers

The powerful soporific mandrake only grows wild on certain Mediterranean islands. In Northern Europe, the forked root of sweet bryony was usually substituted, often enhanced by the finder to make it more human in form (cress seeds pressed in to sprout as hair, etc). Amongst the many mandrake legends were that it grew only in the body fluids dripping from a hanged man, caused anyone who picked it to go mad (the root was therefore to be pulled by being tied to a dog's tale), that it stridulated or screamed when pulled - 'I prithee, yet remember, millions are now in graves that at last day like mandrakes shall rise screaming'. John Webster's favourite peice of flora...

after Teniers

This is an engraving based on Teniers's paintings by Maleuvre in the late 18th century. Here an anointing or ritual ablution of the naked witch is taking place. They also have a sieve ready in case they want to take to the waters rather than the air. The more eroticised handling of the witch by this later artist brings out the full indecency of the reversed besom.


This is an imitator of Teniers, Cornelis Saftleven, doing a sabbath scene, with Satan presiding as a goat.