Archive for the Pre-1800 Category

Hans Baldung Grien’s Weather Witches, 1523

Posted in Painting, Pre-1800, PSFW on 5 December 2009 by redwitch1

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.

Before 1800

Posted in index, Pre-1800 on 2 August 2008 by redwitch1

The following links are to all of my posts of sexy witches before 1800.

  • Sexy Witch in the 1470s
  • Dürer’s Four Witches, 1497
  • Hans Baldung Grien’s Weather Witches, 1523
  • The Witch of Endor, 1728
  • The Witch of Endor, 1754
  • Burns’ Tam O’Shanter, 1791 (1855 illustrations)
  • The Witch of Endor, 1754

    Posted in Book, Engraving, Pre-1800, SFW on 21 January 2008 by redwitch1

    What I didn’t mention in my post on The Witch of Endor, 1728 was that the image I used is by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) from Figures de la Bible (The Hague: P. de Hondt, 1728). The rest of the images from this book are available online here.

    The caption for the image is in Hebrew, Latin, English, French, German and Dutch, meaning the book was printed for a Europe-wide audience. The book and its images soon reached England, where they were copied for Robert Goadley in An Illustration of the Holy Scriptures, by Notes and Exposition. This book was published in Sherborne, in 132 parts, between 1754 and 1759. (“The First Book of Samuel, otherwise called the First Book of the Kings” being towards the start of the Bible, this image was probably published in 1754).

    Here are the same images from a copy of the book that has had each engraving hand-coloured (using watercolour paints).

    As you can see above, the English version of Hoag’s artwork has been reversed in copying, and is a pretty poor imitation of the original. While the colouring is probably a professional job, it is also somewhat crudely done. Though our witch has lost much of her beauty, however, it is clear that she is supposed to be young and beautiful, even if the artist and/or engraver was not up to the task of creating an engraving as attractive as the original.

    It also shows that representations of the Witch of Endor as attractive and young existed throughout the eighteenth century; and that Hoag’s 1728 artwork published in Holland influenced later representations of the Witch of Endor elsewhere in Europe.

    Dürer’s Four Witches, 1497

    Posted in Engraving, Pre-1800, SFW on 5 June 2007 by redwitch1

    The engraving below by Albrecht Dürer is one of the most famous works of art featuring witches, being one of the most accomplished works of one of the greatest Renaissance artists.

    Since this engraving is so frequently reproduced I will only draw your attention to a few details. The grouping of the Four Witches seems to be modeled on a common Classical artistic motif, the Three Graces. We know these figures are not the Graces (Beauty, Mirth and Good Cheer) for a few reasons. The most obvious is the devil burning away merrily in the background, through the doorway on the left-hand side (think, left-hand path).

    Also, scattered on the ground at the feet of the four figures are skulls and bones, suggestive of maleficia (harmful magic).

    If these four figures are witches (as the devil and bones suggest) then it is likely that the figure facing away from us is a young neophyte and the three figures facing us are the three witches who are about to initiate her into their circle. But there is a problem with this interpretation: these elegant and graceful witches are emphatically not the witches of medieval tradition or theological debate and they appear not to be much indebted to the image of the witch engendered by popular superstitions or the witch craze of the seventeenth-century. They are also certainly not peasants: the figure on the left wears an elaborate head-dress, suggesting high social status.

    Margaret Sullivan argues that Dürer’s witches represent a ‘humanist fascination with the underside of the classical world–the magical and occult, the world of dream and fantasy’ (‘The Witches of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien’, Renaissance Quarterly 53.2 (2000), 393). Rather than being contemporary, ‘frightening and demonic’, the ‘seductive and nubile young “witch”‘ is a new take on a classical subject, one that gives the artist an opportunity ‘to display the provocative female nude’ (394).

    If we return to the engraving with this in mind we note the classical postures and dignified nudity of the figures and that the young witch wears a classical wreath.

    Nicoletto da Modena removed the classical vs contemporary or Pagan vs Christian conflict in Dürer’s composition by engraving a version of this scene in 1500, minus the devil and bones, and changing the title to ‘The Judgement of Paris’ (the Judgement being a beauty contest between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, and the result being the Trojan War). Of course, I prefer the witches….

    Sexy Witch in the 1470s

    Posted in Painting, Pre-1800, SFW on 2 May 2007 by redwitch1

    The following painting by the ‘Niederrheinischer Meister’ ['Niederrhein', 'Nederrijn', or 'Lower Rhine' Master] is traditionally titled ‘Liebeszauber’ ['Love Magic' or, less likely, 'Magic of Love']. The painting is held in Leipzig at the Museum der bildenden Künste.

    ‘Liebeszauber’ is, I believe, the earliest painting that is clearly intended to depict a young and attractive witch in an erotic way. The painting is dated to between 1470 and 1480, which makes it a generation earlier than the picture by Albrecht Dürer which I will discuss in another post. It is, inexplicably, omitted by Jane Davidson in her, otherwise excellent, The Witch in Northern European Art, 1470-1750 (Luca Verlag, 1987).

    In the central section of this painting we have the beautiful young witch, golden-haired and pert-breasted, preparing her love spell. She is sprinkling a mysterious liquid on a heart in a chest by her side. The young witch, modestly, gazes away from the viewer, but she is being observed from behind. The voyeur has a clear view of our witch, but we have a better one; certainly a more erotically charged one. The transparent material is draped over the witch’s right arm, crosses her pubic area and clings to her left leg, heightening her allure without obscuring her nakedness.

    It may not be obvious to a modern viewer but the sandals being worn by the witch in this painting also indicate both sexual liberation and aggression. Wikipedia explains that, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, long and pointed-toe shoes called ‘poulaines’ or ‘Cracowes’ (much like modern Winklepickers), were used to embarrass or excite members of the opposite sex by prodding their private parts under tables in public places. Women rarely wore underwear before the late nineteenth-century. Consequently, the phallic-shaped toe could very easily be wriggled into place, while hidden beneath the long skirts of a squirming female. Liberated and forward young women of the time wore poulaines to return, as much as possible, the favour.

    So, here we have a naked, sexually liberated young witch, preparing a love-potion, while being observed fore and aft. Could the erotic intent of the artist be any more clear?


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