Hans Baldung Grien’s Weather Witches, 1523
As Wikipedia will tell you Hans Baldung Grien (ca. 1480–1545) was a gifted student of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Dürer has featured on this blog for his “Four Witches” because, as J Michael said (in feedback on that post), Dürer was “one of the first to break with the hag witch iconography of his age.” Be that as it may, it is only Dürer’s “Four Witches” that warrant a post here, but there are nine images by Hans Baldung Grien that warrant inclusion. I will try to cover these in three posts.
Many of the people who visit this site will be familiar with at least a few of Grien’s paintings, engravings or sketches (below). His artwork has appeared in many coffee-table books and books on witchcraft since the seventies and are now all over the internet. So a few people have left feedback on this site asking why I haven’t done a post on Grien already.
The answer is that most images online are very poor, and most of the images in books have been very poor (until recently). Also, there are very few books on Grien in English, and these few are expensive. The cheaper art books do not feature the witch images at all, and even the expensive ones only have a few of the nine. As I said, coffee table books on Witchcraft usually include a few images, and so I have been scanning these as I find them, looking for better quality images, and putting off doing a post until I had decent scans of all nine.
I still don’t have all nine, though I have scanned some images six or seven times over (i.e., from six or seven different books), but it is now clear why I won’t be getting the ninth any time soon (as I’ll explain next time).
The images I have now are probably as good as I can hope for. This is largely a result of the publication in November 2007 (in German and English) of Hexenlust und Sundenfall: Die Seltsamen Phantasien des Hans Baldung Grien [Witches' Lust and the Fall of Man: The Strange Fantasies of Hans Baldung Grien] (Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2007).
Witches’ Lust and the Fall of Man is a bilingual catalogue by Bodo Brinkmann of works exhibited at the Städel Museum. It is beautifully illustrated and Brinkmann’s essays on the various engravings of witches are extremely informative, even if I question his interpretation in places. If you can afford it: buy it!
As you can see, I decided to start with the one painting of witches by Grien; the same artwork—held by the Städel Museum—that prompted both the Städel Museum exhibition and catalogue. (Page references below are to Witches’ Lust and the Fall of Man.) The painting titled in German “Zwei Hexen” or “Two Witches” and is dated 1523; but it also known as “Weather Witches” for fairly obvious reasons.
The painting depicts two witches, a goat and a child or putto.
One witch is standing with her back to, but is looking over her right shoulder to face, the viewer; the other witch is seated on a goat facing us.
The seated witch holds in her left hand a glass flask that contains a spirit in the form of a dragon. (Brinkmann points out the similarity of this visual element with the depiction of quicksilver or mercury vapour in contemporary illuminated alchemical manuscripts (136–37).)
In the background, roiling clouds suggest a storm. But this appears not to be the sort of rain- or hail-storm that witches were frequently accused of creating; rather it appears to be a fire-storm (29). Take a look at some of the pictures of the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria (like this one, and this one) and you’ll see what I mean.
Brinkmann’s interpretation of this scene strikes me as rather bizarre. He claims its symbolism—its visual narrative—is a warning to viewers of the evil of lust in general and venereal disease in particular. No, I am not making this up. Mercury was the most common and effective treatment of various venereal diseases at the time, diseases which had only recently arrived in Europe. (Various venereal diseases were not differentiated for centuries. But as Wikipedia explains, the first well-recorded European outbreak of what is now known as syphilis occurred in 1494; and mercury was the earliest known suggested treatment for syphilis.) To Brinkmann, this is why the glass flask contains quicksilver, the witch is holding aloft the equivalent of a medicine bottle.
Personally, I think Brinkmann is over-reaching himself here. Witch-hunters were obsessed with the sexual activity of witches. As the Malleus Maleficarum (1487) claims “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable”; and we might add, “all witch-hunting comes from carnal lust, which is in men insatiable” (i.e., all witch-hunters were misogynistic bastards whose natural sexual desires had been twisted by their religious beliefs ).
The witches in this painting are identified as witches by practicing malefica (harmful magic), using their familiar (in the form of a demon in a bottle) to raise an un-natural storm (identified by the fact that it does not look like a normal rain or hail storm). James I of England (James VI of Scotland) may be the most famous victim cum persecutor of weather-witches (see his writing here), but the belief that witches could conjure storms was very, very well established when Grien started this painting.
As for the goat, well as anyone who has been following this blog will tell you goats appear in almost every European depiction of witches traveling to, or at, a sabbat. Witches and goats go together like, well like Christians and misogyny. (See here and here for two recent examples that I have posted.)
This leaves the child or putti. Putti have no unique, fixed or immediately identifiable attributes, so putti may have many different meanings and roles in art. Identifying the child in this painting as a putti does not help interpret the figure. Personally, I am inclined to identify the child as a child since young children appear in depictions of the sabbat and the hexenritt (the witches’ ride to the sabbat) just as often as goats. They are part of the traditional iconography.
And the reason for their presence is the fear held by christians and witch-hunters that women were the prime corruptors of society. That women were corrupting their own children, bringing them up as fellow servants of the devil. (Or eating them, both claims had their purposes as propaganda.) You have to wonder whether the regular reliance of witch-hunters on the testimony of children (remember Salem) contributed to the belief that women were regularly accompanied by their children to the sabbat. If they were not it would undermine the very useful testimony they provided.
However one interprets the painting the witches were intended to be alluring. Our ideals of beauty may have changed, but this much is clear. Both witches have a hold on a slip of material that does not even come close to concealing any of their pink-bits. In fact, the drapery simply heightens our awareness of their nudity. The figure on the left displays both her naked backside and a profile of her breasts.
The one on the right displays both her naked breasts and her crotch.
I do not believe that this is accidental, it is not that in order to depict witches one must depict naked women performing malefica, but in order to depict naked women one must depict witches performing malefica. This is why the moralising in Grien’s depictions of witches, such as it is, is always so feeble.
If you look through the oeuvre of Grien there are naked women everywhere. He was forever finding a reason for his female figures to get their kit off. It was the sixteenth and seventeenth-century artistic loophole, their get-out-of-gaol-free card. If Grien had been born in 1980 instead of 1480 he’d probably be photographing underwear models, or running a blog like this one. Personally, I am glad he was born in 1480 and that he had Dürer as a master.