The Witchcraft Art of Jacques de Gheyn II

Back to main page:file:///W|/uhle/001/EN3012.htm

De Gheyn has been written about by Jane P Davidson, in her Witch in Northern European Art book of 1987, and by B. Judson. He is also the suject of a web-posted MA essay, in German, by Petra Aescht

This extraordinary image is by Jacques de Gheyn II. The original is at Christ Church, Oxford. Marina Warner's catalogue for the exhibition The Inner Eye: Art Beyond the Visible (1996) drew it to my attention. The witches are conventional enough 'hags', who have assembled at a ruined vault. One, seen in vivid profile, is mixing a potion, another looks out towards us with hollow eyes. Under the vault, between them, another sits as in a drugged trance before a light or censer. Above her, another walks by candlelight. On the platform of masonry are a skull and long bone for necromancy, and, facing away, three familiars or 'imps', a cat, rat, and a toad. There is also an open register of attendance, as in News From Scotland or, indeed, a seminar. But dominating the picture, and giving it its hallucinatory quality is the Mesozoic monster on which the devil has arrived, part Ostrich Dinosaur, part camel, blind eyed and fanged. On its back, the devil, a naked dark male sits entwined with a naked witch, whose dangling breasts and genital cleft are delineated. She has, in a touch of crowning grotesquerie, put her hair up for this big night out.

A Witches' Sabbath

Unlike the noisy looking extasies of Grein's witches, this lugubrious scene has scarcely any interaction. Horrible though the apparition is, all the witches, and their familiars, ignore it, each witch being absorbed in separate reveries. Only the devil is making any effort to get the party going, but his partner seems lost in thought.

Gheyn, like other artists of the period, would depict imaginary or real animals at sabbaths. Amongst this image reverie of vaults, witches hovering in the 'fog and filthy air', a stray elephant backs into a corner

sabbath with elephant


In this nightmarish engraving by the master of witchcraft art, Jacques de Gheyn, the fantasies of infanticide are depicted. Hags tend a cauldron on a brazier, to the ceremony a heavily pregnant young woman ominously arrives; her almost naked companion behind her carries a baby's head on a platter. The artist is imagining the obscene; a fantasy of desirable women doing the unthinkable. A rocket-assisted witch exits via the chimney, another with distaff and spindle sits to guard the scene, her toad-familiar beneath her stool. A young man, drugged or dead, lies in a shallow pit. Judging by other engravings by de Gheyn, he will be dissected for body parts (below)

Infanticidal witches

The next two engravings depict necromancy with the kind of horrible vividity we read of in Marstons' Sophonisba. Beneath a vault, tthree witches, accompanied by various cat and mouse familars, dissect a young man, whose cadavre lies opened. A horse's skull peers in at the ghoulish scene, a Satanic version of Rembrant's 'Anatomy Lesson' paintings.

witches under a vault

A darker version of the same engraving, with enhanced chiaroscuro-variant of above

De Gheyn also produced studies of accoutrements of witchcraft. Here, a reading stand for a 'grimoire' or Book of Spells is surrounded by truly obscene amphibia, which seem to possess, horribly, human genitalia and breasts. We can imagine them to be transformed witches.

witch frogs

Here, de Gheyn offers studies of what seems to be a flayed rat and a dead toad:

naked rats

An equally strange collocation of zoomorphic spirits and an accurately observed animal occurs on the following sheet of studies

Spirits with a lobster

In this freakish scene, an ambulant gallows tree skates towards a hole in the ice, apparently to feed a platter of toads to a monstrous seal. A group of witches, presumably in charge of these events, hold hands round a platform higher up the trunk.

freakish scene

Here, a witch is depicted cackling with pleasure as her cat farts

Witch and Cat

This sabbath is 'after' an engraving by De Gheyn, and is a relatively conventional depiction of witches preparing for flight, taking to the air, and causing showers of blood, tempest and the like

another sabbath