Witches and wicked bodies
25 September–11 January
Between 1580 and 1640, around 50,000 people were killed in history’s most murderous ‘witch craze.’ Almost half of these deaths occurred in Germany, and eighty percent of victims were women–in particular women over 40. Witchcraft was one of few crimes at the time in which women were found guilty. With this in mind, the content of the British Museum’s comprehensive exhibition Witches and wicked bodies–predominantly Germanic artists, depicting witches exclusively as female–is unsurprising. The art itself is shocking, often upsetting, and remarkably beautiful despite the morbid subject matter.
With the exception of several Ancient Greek paintings on pottery, the pieces displayed are mainly etchings, with graphite, chalk and watercolour mediums coming after 1800. The majority date from between 1500 and 1600, during the height of the persecutions and, significantly, during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, a period of great upheaval within the Protestant and Catholic Church, which began in Germany in 1517. This time of religious fervour cannot be disconnected from the sudden fear and persecution of ‘witches,’ and, as seen here, the huge amount of art devoted to the subject of witchcraft.
I attended a corresponding lecture given by Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford and author of Oedipus and the Devil: Witchcraft, sexuality and religion in early modern Europe (1994), Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (2004), and The Witch in the Western Imagination (2012). The lecture, titled Evil hags and mothers: women and witchcraft in Germany, focused on how the role of women during the time influenced how witches were depicted, and who was accused. Pieces such as Albrecht Durer’s Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat (1500), Daniel Hopfer’s Three Witches Beating a Devil (1505), and Hans Baldung Grien’s Witches’ Sabbath (1510), epitomise the archetypal witch: sagging breasts, a crooked nose, wrinkled skin and long, flowing hair. Roper argues that this model of the witch comes from society’s derision of the older, post-menopausal and therefore infertile woman. In a world where a woman’s significant function was to reproduce, female impotence was dreaded. Witchcraft, performed by such barren creatures, was an attack on fertility; witches are often depicted as attacking crops, destroying nourishment, or killing and consuming babies and children.
What struck me most, aside from the monstrous misogyny, was the artists’ fixation on the female form. Most of the witches are naked, and brazenly so, their breasts–such a classic symbol of femininity–deformed by age, subverting their womanliness, and making them figures of disgust rather than desire. There is a strong sense of voyeurism with this focus on the body, linking to representations of the ‘ages of woman’ in art, exemplified in Baldung’s The Seven Ages of Woman (1545). Interestingly, Durer’s The Four Witches (1497) lacks the wizened older women of later depictions, instead illustrating full-bodied, nude women that exude vitality. In this way, the piece is more a study of the female body than portrayal of evil hags.
These hags, variously ‘shrieking,’ ‘muscular,’ and ‘hideous’ in the Britsh Museum’s accompanying descriptions, embody sexuality but without the youth and fertility of women in classic Renaissance art, such as Vecelli’s Venus of Urbino (1538), Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (1555), or Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486). These women, painted in oils with rich colors and soft, inviting textures, sharply contrast those portrayed in these diabolical etchings, outlined sharply and shaded in stark monochrome. Their bodies are old, but powerful rather than frail, adding to the sense of fear–they do not conform to what society expects from an old woman. This almost standardized iconography of the elderly female–the hag–persists today, in Halloween costumes and cinematic villains.
It is only in the 1800’s onwards that the depiction of the witch changes dramatically. While her sexuality remains, it is now normalised, as witches are shown as ‘femme fatales,’ aligning with Romanticism and the Pre-Raphaelite movements. John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle (1886) shows a young, fully clothed witch in muted colors, standing alone rather than surrounded by demonic figures or animals as often seen in the 15th century etchings. During this time–while witches were no longer being burned at the stake, blamed for bad crops or casting spells and curses–fear of witchcraft may have diminished, but fear of the female body and sexuality remained. Women were still a threat to masculinity, perhaps explaining the shift in representations of witches as hags to young, beautiful women.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the style changes once more; Henry Keen’s exquisitely morbid lithograph Lilith (1925-30) is almost art-deco, and Sidney H. Sine’s gloomy The Felon Flower (1897) illustrating the popular Japonisme style. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Joan of Arc (1882) stands out as a stunning, vivid portrayal of one of late history’s most famous ‘witches,’ and a remarkable figure of female strength and belief. Executed by fire in 1431 at the age of 19, Joan is the antithesis of the Reformation witch, and her inclusion in the exhibition highlights the fact that, no matter what form a witch takes, it is her very existence as a woman that condemns her. The overwhelming effect of Witches and wicked bodies is one of sadness; for the huge loss of life, and literal demonization and persecution of women based on patriarchal fear and religious fanaticism.
The breadth of the exhibition cannot be faulted, and that the 1500-1700’s dominate is unsurprising given the historical context. Approaching the art as a woman does much to reinforce feminist convictions–one can only hope that those of the non-female persuasion take something of the same away. Witches and wicked bodies has little to do with witchcraft and the occult, and everything to do with the ongoing persecution of women for little more than the fact of their bodies.