The artist Hans Baldung, called Grien (Green), was a follower of Albrecht Durer, and trained in Durer's workshop. His cognomen, 'Green', apparently stemmed from his love of the colour: he was reputed to wear clothes in no other colour. He set up as a master in Strasbourg, and there, between 1509 and 1512, he did most of his pictures of witchcraft. Strasbourg was visited by periodic witch scares.

Grien, Departure for the Sabbath

Grien's images of witchcraft are very strange. Like many German artists of the period, he likes to contrast different ages of women (in his pictures of witches), so that these fantasies of witchcraft sometimes seem to be an excuse to bring together crones and younger, fully-fleshed women. These images are also filled with swirls of smoke or other visible fumes, and the hair of the witches often seems to mix into this odorous atmosphere. His witches ride pitchforks or goats, cats are their ubiquitous companions. In the following image, the pitchfork is used to hold a pitcher in the fumes rising from below. One seated witch has just lifted the lid, the other apparently directs the noxious flow. The kneeling celebrant of these rites has further items for the pot: you can just see a lizard perched on top of the platter she holds aloft (think of the cauldron scene in Macbeth). The reaction is chemical-supernatural: the witches don't have a fire, though the wooden spoon is amusingly domestic. This woodcut show Grien's bravura mastery of printing in both grey and black, to get the effect of chiarascuro ( a mix of light and shade, as in a drawing highlighted with chalk). The scene is framed by the fumes rising at the left, and the stark, leafless tree on the right.

Sabbath, Grien

In the following peculiar scene, the young woman participates in a circulation of monstrosity: the diabolic-looking sea-serpent eats, and excretes through its tail-end. This may well be a scene of tempest-raising. It is to be feared that Grien wants us to imagine that the witch has just given birth, and it is an umbilical cord that connects her to a monster that has just ingested her baby. Teetering between this utterly obscene and the decorative, this has to be the most unhinged of Grien's images.

witchcraft scene, grien

Here, three witches, of different ages, in contorted postures. One holds aloft the potion they have brewed, which rhymes visually with their windswept hair. Grien reduces his composition to meaningless postures in a bare space. The dances of the witches in The Masque of Queens are contrasted with the letter-forming dancing of the queens: the choreographer had to contrast grotesquerie and the strenuously meaningful.

Three witches, Grien

Another of these scenes. The practitioners of magic aspire to rise upwards, yet end up sprawling, losing all self-control. The collapsed witch has apparently lost control of her bowels, the cat joins her, by being sick.

More Grien witches

And a final pile-up of bodies, the skull as necromantic offering made by the overthrown witch, the fuming vessel a version of the censer with its incense in a Catholic church, the goat as usual.

Grien, witches

In Grien's most documentary image, 'The Bewitched Groom', the victim lies prostrate, entranced or dead, in brilliant yet grotesque perspective. His assailant peers in triumphantly, her torch a traditional adjunct to the malicious. His pitchfork, a legitimate tool for his trade, lies beneath him, and another farrier's tool has dropped from his hand. In Marion Gibson's Early Modern Witches is an example of the type of sudden incapacitating illness or death which we can still diagnose: but to the early modern mind, malefice was all too often the explanation jumped to. John Law the Pedlar has 'the left-side lamed all save his eye' (p. 246): we can see that he suffered a stroke, rather than being harmed by a witch's curse. Grien's picture may illustrate just such another medical condition, editorialised as a product of malice. A witch intruding into a stable is, perhaps, intruding into the world of male transport. Witches ride pitchforks, cats, goats, or turn themselves into hares or greyhounds. Men and horses have nothing to do with this. The stable scenes in The Late Lancashire Witches have perhaps some sense of the female diabolic intruding into the male world. Think of a confrontation between a male owner of a performance car and a woman motor-mechanic.

Bewitched groom

Here is a very traditional anti-feminist image by Grien: Phillis riding the besotted, bridled Aristotle. She has a dainty whip to spur on the philosopher, whose nakedness and long beard make him look like a father of the church depraved by the flesh. Another woman surreptitiously looks on at this female triumph over the humiliated male.

Aristotle and Phillis

And here she is, Grien's take on Eve - that hair, the body weight on one foot (as used in Durer's four witches, copied from statues of Venus), her consciousness of her own effect, her eyes swivelling away to an out-of-frame serpent (or down the body of a similarly naked Adam), her modesty inflaming, the apple cocked in the hand she has behind her back, another on the broken branch she holds before her pudendum. No doubt varnish has darkened on this picture, but it is hard to imagine that this was ever a broad daylight Eve. She is the woman lit by her own beauty, about to lead Adam off into the dark.