Dürer’s Four Witches, 1497
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….