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For a gallery of images by Hans Baldung Grien, click here: HansBaldung.htm

For a gallery of images by Jacques de Gheyn II, click here: deGheyn.htm

For a further gallery of woodcuts from English pamphlets, etc, click here: Woodcuts_of_witches.htm

This image is a superb chiaroscuro engraving by Jan Van Der Velde, 'The Sorceress', 1626.


The sorceress, youthful and full-figured, adds powder from a horn to her cauldron. Zoomorphic spirits crowd around. A somersaulting demon with two clay pipes stuck in its fundament contributes to the charm. Medieval plays like 'The Castle of Perseverance' feature devils with pipes 'burning in their arses', it is the old motif which associates the demonic with anality. Her hair in part follows the direction of the flames, but in paintings by Teniers we see witches adding ingredients to cauldrons whose hair also goes all the wrong way like this. Grien's fantasias on witchcraft blend hair and smoke.

English art apparently had no latitude for such imaginative exploration of imputed witch practices, but is largely functional. This 1643 woodcut shows a wretched fugitive apparently surfing on a plank across the River Kennet at Newbury. Shot at by Parliamentarian soldiers, she reportedly caught and ate the musket balls, until finally being brought down. Witches, having rejected baptism (as the demonologists saw it) could not sink in water, which rejected them. Hence their ability to sail in sieves (News from Scotland), and the notorious swimming test promoted by the 1613 pamphlet, Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed, for notable villanies by them conducted both by Land and Water: With a strange and true triall how to know whether a woman be a Witch or not ('being throwne in the first time shee sunke some two foote into the water with a fall, but rose againe, and floated upon the water like a planke'). A special inducement to purchasers of the 1643 pamphlet lies in the promise to give her 'propheticall words and speeches'.

Witch surfing on plank

A similar, earlier woodcut of a sorcerer surfing, from a continental witchcraft pamphlet:

A sorcerer surfs

The witch in the 1643 pamphlet is entirely generic. These English woodcuts often reflect the preoccupations of the pamphlets by individuating their witches via attention to the familiar. Imps in various animal or fantastic shapes are given a lot of attention. The following title page depicts Matthew Hopkins, a self-appointed witchfinder, whose brief but horrible inquisition (some 200 victims) shows what could happen where the usual simmering local hatreds could be encouraged into a conflagration in the absence of the Anglican church's more sceptical hierachy, and during the collapse of the normal judiciary. His victims are depicted naming their familiars, the motley menagerie which parades before them, kitten, cony, dog and indescribable. Hopkins secured his convictions through (effectively) torture. The accused would be kept awake, the aim being to have the familiar appear. Curiously, though this never happened, but that did not stop the hangings. (1645, Essex and Suffolk).

JJ Wick

A woodcut by JJ Wick of a witch being carried off to hell by the devil. A horrified cleric looks on. The theatricality of this scene is marked: it could illustrate an allegorical interlude, in which a devil-vice carries off a sinner. See a late example in Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, when Miles agrees to leave for hell on the back of a devil ('Exeunt roaring' in Scene 15 of the play).

witch travels to hell

The same motif, this time on horseback. The supernumary faces sported by the devil (on the knees in both the above engravings) might have been something that entered the iconography of theatre costumes.

A reverse baptism

A reverse baptism froma German woodcut: note that this mixed sex sabbath has both sexes engaging in devil worship

entering the black book

Another young man swaps the book of salvation for the devil's black book of the damned.

Sabbath 1669

A German sabbath scene of 1669: round the mountain, witches process, embraced by demons and led by musicians. Witches fly, fall off aerial goats, tend cauldrons. The osculum Satanis is performed; there is a strong faecal motif.

Matthew Hopkins, witchfinder

Fairfaxms 1621

The image above is from the unpublished manuscript account, in 1621, of the bewitchment of Helen Fairfax. It shows a witch and various familars, and a diabolical imp.

In Pieter van Laer's amusing 'Self Portrait as a Sorcerer', one surmises that a love-spell is being attempted: the open book has a pierced heart motif. The smoking potion being brewed up in the skull inverted on the hot coals at left has, however, summoned up the fiend, whose talons enter right, to the alarm of the sorcerer. To depict oneself as a sorcerer obviously requires confidence that your witty picture will be recognised as just that, and not insanely self-incriminating. What is remarkable here is that van Laer (c1592-1642) was born deformed, and hence his nickname when working, as he did, in Rome, 'Il Bambaccio' ('The puppet'). The first of Matthew Hopkins' many victims was one-legged, Elizabeth Sawyer was one-eyed: witch accusations haunted the disabled or defective. In this context, van Laer's self-portrait seems even more remarkable in its confidence. At about the same time as this picture, in England, Dr Lamb, a reputed 'sorcerer', was attacked in the London streets by a mob of sailors and apprentices (after a visit to the Fortune theatre), and died of his injuries (1628). There is a ferocious and gloating ballad which survives, 'The Tragedy of Dr Lamb', but the play staged subsequently, Dr Lamb and the Witches has unfortunately been lost.

Self-portrait as sorcerer

The next image is a crowded and murky phantasmagoria, Frans Franken II's 'An Assembly of Witches' of 1607. The original is in Vienna. A largely female collection of witches gather to cast spells using books ('Grimoires'), skulls and other ingredients. One sits at a table to record the experiments. Notice that one of these witches apparently has her (female) child with her. Various imps can be seen in the middle ground of the picture: one like a gremlin on a gallows, right top centre, a demonic incubus assaults a naked figure at the right. A huge cauldron is being boiled up at the right rear. The figure of the young woman (or figure in woman's clothing) is puzzling. She may be some kind of captive, arms tied behind her back, or a male interloper whose true sex has been revealed by opening the dress. Another two male figures look in at the scene in the left foreground. They just may be intermediary figures between us and the coven, or might be rescuers. Here witchcraft is becoming Gothic, an atrocity pantomime, with suggestions of a romance narrative to the picture.

An assembly of witches

This is a witches' kitchen scene ascribed to the same artist, combining devil worship (left front), a vigorously stirred cauldron, and a table with all the usual clutter and debris of incantations and spirit raising.

Variant of above?

A more conventional cauldron scene is the engraving assigned to the shadowy Adrianus Hubertus. Here the witches have boiled up their ointment, and two have already achieved lift-off. Among the usual quasi-Satanic livestock are two goats (one witch seems to have arrived riding one), and a cat. Striking here, as in the woodcuts of Grein, is the element of perversity, marked in the apparently Sapphic scene at the left, between the youthful and aged participant at these rites.

Witches' Sabbath by Hubertus

As we look at these artistic renderings of witchcraft, it might be worth remembering that, like our plays, the artistic shades insensibly into the propagandistic. Some engravings in demonological texts are there to enforce the ferocious beliefs propounded by the authors. This is the frontispiece to Bishop peter Binsfield's de confessionibus maleficorum et sagarum (1589). Binsfield was the 'brains' behind the ferocious purge conducted by the Prince-Abbot of Trier. Here witches fly on pitch-forks and goats, blast crops, kneel to devils and consort with their demon lovers. Centrally, a witch adds a baby to a cauldron, in the ultimate perversion of all that the early modern period believed to be the correct female role.

Peter Binsfield

Two images by a famous artist, Albrecht Durer. The ambiguous engraving below hovers somewhere between a picture of the Graces, and an image of a group of witches. This is, perhaps, symptomatic enough. You will see that, apart from the headresses, the general effect is statuesque. Then the more disturbing elements of the image register. Why do the four women stand on two different levels? Two stand up one step from the others, and seem differentiated by their higher-status headgear. Are they being enticed to step down, and through the doorway at the right? The right-hand figure isn't holding up her drapery with her right hand, and the elongation of her concealed arm plays off against what appear to be conventional gestures of pudeur in the young woman who faces away from us. The impassive older woman may also be joining in this hidden play of touching, grasping and inviting. More obviously eldritch is the skull and long bone lying at the feet, giving the sense of steps into a grave. And, most obviously, the devil himself rises from hell at the bottom left, a horned beast, accompanied by flames. He seems to be grasping a net, in a shape which rhymes visually with the rear of the coif worn by the young woman or initiate at the left. That his fanged face draws attention to the row of buttocks and the semi-veiled pudendum gives the engraving a special frisson in connecting sex and its punishment. That the engraving has a date (something unexampled at this stage of Durer's career) makes some scholars think that the mysterious scene may illustrate some particular event. The O.G.H. on the pomegranate-shaped sphere has never been explained.

Durer, Four Witches

The other Durer image gives his handling of a traditional motif, with a witch riding an animal backwards, in this case, a ram. She carries what I take to be a distaff, revealing her power, while behind her, she leaves meteoric disaster. Yet four putti play in the foreground, carrying and balancing things, while the witch's hair streams in the counter-direction to her travel.

witch on ram, durer

Here is an older German woodcut on the same theme: a wizard rides a cat backwards, a peasant woman riding a pitchfork is snatched by a devil, while stones fall from the sky.

early woodcut of witches

Rembrandt, Dr Faustus, 1652

Rembrandt's engraving, 'Dr Faustus', is a late and relatively sober image of the magus in action. Unalarmed, the mage scrutinises the magical apparition levitating in front of him, which is covered with occult or cabbalistic signs. The source of unease in the picture is the watching figure at the window, a possible informant against the Doctor. A skull also seems to look on. The unfinished engraving leaves obscure just what Faustus is resting his weight on, or where he is standing in this sunken lumber-room.

Less artistic is this book cover, from the German 'Wagnerbook'. So popular was the 'Faustbook', that a companion volume dealing with the antics of Faustus's scholar appeared. While Faustus confronts Mephostophilis, Wagner interacts with an ape:

Title page, the Wagnerbook

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1472-1533) turned to a Biblical scene in his 'Saul and the Witch of Endor' (1526). This is from the First Book of Samuel, Chapters 28, when 'Saul, forsaken of God, seeketh to a witch', as the Authorised Version gloss puts it. Israel has been invaded by the Philistines, and Saul can get no response from God. Seeking to know the future, even though he has 'put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land' (verse 4), Saul seeks out the witch to know the future. Note that the translation here is the AV's characteristically 17th century English version: other translations might read that Saul seeks out a 'medium': here, it is a 'woman that hath a familiar spirit' (verse 7). The woman protests when Saul goes to consult her in disguise, with two followers, saying that Saul has 'cut off' prophets like herself, 'wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?' Reassured that nothing she does will lead to her being punished, the woman then accedes to a request to summon up the spirit of the recently dead Samuel. As soon as he appears, the woman realises that her client is actually Saul himself. Samuel complains about being 'disquieted' in death; Saul asks what will become of his kingdom, and Samuel's spirit makes a prophecy of his doom, that tomorrow both Saul and his sons will 'be with me' (verse 19): this proves to be true in Chapter 31. Saul falls to the ground in despair. The woman, saying 'Behold, thine handmaid hath obeyed thy voice, and I have put my life in my hand' (verse 21). She succours Saul with food, and he afterwards goes on his way, without molesting her.

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In the Dutch artist's imagining of the scene, we see various elements of the developing story in the one image. The scrolls in the air may well be Bible passages. At the left, Saul arrives for his consultation. Witches often inhabit ruins like this one. Centrally, the woman, holding a torch aloft, and seated in a magic circle pronounces charms from a book held open by a faun. Her wand is wrapped with written spells, a taper burns beside her. Her partly naked body is typical of the way witchcraft scenes focus on the non-beautiful, aged female body. Nothing in the Bible suggests that the 'Witch of Endor' is an old woman. In the archway, in the background, Saul is defeated (1 Samuel 31), and the prophet Samuel rises from his grave. At the right are witch scenes more typical of the European witchcraft scare than anything in the Bible. A coven of women, old and young, cooking on a brazier, and drinking, have gathered: two are still sitting astride their goats. Meanwhile other witches arrive by transvection, bearing food to the feast. One is drawn astride a skull, towed through the air by two cockerels, another flies on a goat, a third rides a long pole (possibly a baker's peel?). At the right, the tempests invariably associated with witch activities are seen. Another faun, with a hurdy-gurdy, is there to supply the music. The artist decorates his scene with Brueghel-esque demons, transitional and jumbled in form. One stalks over the ruined archway, and sports a horned face where it should have a bottom. The splendid creature lower left holds up a scrying glass for the witch, through the smoke of her censer she will see the future in the glass. The three owls could be 'familiars', though that notion is more English than Dutch. Creatures of the night, whose shrieking cries herald doom, the owl stands ambiguously between its ancient associations with wisdom and 16th Century associations with folly.

In an anonymous German artist's 'Der Liebeszauber' ('The Love Charm') we see witchcraft at its most appealing. A youthful witch, depicted in the late Medieval Gothic (unanatomical) style with implausible breasts and the characteristic belly Gothic art found beautiful, had woven a love spell. Her incantation is captured in the scrolls which float in the air, a heart is at her mercy in the opened chest in front of the fire. Unsurprisingly the charm has worked, and the young man has arrived at the door. Her pet dog (it doesn't look like a familiar spirit) is unimpressed by these human goings-on.

The Love Charm

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