We are all familiar with the appearance of a witch. A gnarled old man with warts, missing teeth, and vivid green skin. Then there’s the long black cloak, the tall black hat, and the large crooked nose smelling the vapors rising from a seething cauldron in a cobweb-encrusted chamber.
But, according to a large new art book released just in time for Halloween, that’s not what witches look like at all. The image of the wicked hag is flipped upside down in this collection of witchy ladies, ranging from Renaissance art to current Wicca.
Witchcraft, the newest collection in Taschen’s Library of Esoterica, finds evidence for its revisionist picture of witches as generally youthful, attractive practitioners of highly sexualised magick from artists as disparate as Auguste Rodin and Kiki Smith. The legendary enchantress Circe is shown in pale, red-lipped pre-Raphaelite rapture on the cover painting by Victorian artist JW Waterhouse — and the fun doesn’t stop there.
The witches in this world are strong feminist sex goddesses whose rituals and incantations are subversively fun.
Witchcraft isn’t exactly a respectable academic pursuit. It features images of Wiccans – practitioners of contemporary pagan witchcraft – from the 1960s and 1970s, and one of its editors is a witch.
Stewart Farrar’s misty monochrome photograph Consecration of Wine depicts his wife, Janet, bare-breasted, filling a raised chalice in a modern ritual “meant to invoke the sacred union of male and female – the alchemical wedding” in a modern ritual “meant to invoke the sacred union of male and female – the alchemical wedding.” In a British back yard in 1981, a group known as the “Farrar coven” lies down on their backs to make a pentagram.
The theory of Witchcraft is extremely persuasive. The editors discover something amazing when examining the history of art for evidence to support their modern-pagan viewpoint.
Artists have produced representations of the witch that are far distant from the cackling caricature established by witch trials and recalled in popular culture today with little regard for the women (and some men) who were slaughtered in these mockeries of justice throughout the years.
Kiki Smith’s art seeks to pay tribute to the witch-hunters’ victims. Her artwork depicts a naked witch kneeling on an unlit pyre, triumphantly raising her arms: a woman risen from misogyny’s past. People accused of witchcraft were mostly elderly women who lived in poverty on the outskirts of rural villages during the “witch craze,” which lasted from roughly 1570 until 1660.
Their better-off neighbors were terrified of their alleged mystical retribution. Investigators such as England’s famed Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, claimed the witches ate newborns, traded animal familiars or “imps,” and had intercourse with Satan during a nocturnal sabbath.
This prejudice was as far removed from truth as medieval Europe’s genocidal portrayal of Jews. However, a simple glance through this book reveals that, even while old country women were being demonized and burnt alive, Renaissance painters had a radically different perspective on witchcraft. They connected it with feminine strength, charm, and desire.
Satisfaction — a 1984 painting by Shimon Okshteyn depicting a victorious post-coital “modern siren,” as the text puts it – exults in allegedly witchy sexual power on one of the volume’s spreads. It is paired with a 15th-century German artwork of a nude lady casting a spell in her chamber by an unknown artist. A guy stands at the entrance, watching the naked witch. You can’t help but think he’s in serious danger.
He’ll be punished magically only for seeing this witch dancing during her secret rituals. But warts, an unattractive nose, and a resemblance? No, this is one of early Renaissance art’s most seductive tones.
In the work of the famous German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, the emphasis on the attractiveness and appeal of witches is even more obvious. Dürer created The Four Witches, an etching depicting fleshy figures dancing in a circle, in 1497. They’re drawn with a bravado he picked up on a journey through the Alps to Venice.
Not only did he come across the city’s sex workers who also served as models for artists, but he also came across the new classically inspired Italian art with its fetish of the human body. Dürer, on the other hand, is troubled by his own impulses.
He appears to feel that these ladies are witches even as he sketches them nude, as though imagining respectable Nuremberg frauen with their clothes off. An open door at the rear of the chamber shows the devil, who watches his followers from a basement that has turned into a doorway to hell with his fanged mouth hanging wide.
Even when Dürer depicts an elderly witch riding backwards on a goat, an image more strongly associated with the witch-hunt stereotype, he surrounds her with a bevy of Renaissance cupids to add to the confusion. He is more interested in investigating the aesthetic and moral contradictions between his love of the body and his dread of sin than in condemning elderly peasants.
Two witches are given even more graceful youth and beauty in a picture by his student Hans Baldung Grien. They pose in a glamorous manner, more like models than ghastly agents. Lucas Cranach, another renowned German 16th-century artist, was the most perplexing of all.
He portrayed fetishistically gloved or bonily naked women as charismatic, sexualized embodiments of authority – despite the fact that, as a magistrate, he would have been intimately engaged in the execution of “witches.” He seeks all that he persecuted in real life in the sado-masochist dream world of his work.
If painters could appreciate the witch as much as this when women suspected of witchcraft were being burnt for posing a danger to Christian civilization, it’s no surprise that after the persecution ended, art grew even more charmed with the theme. Burning witches appeared harsh superstitious nonsense by the 18th century.
Instead, they became imagination fuel. Rodin’s erotic sketches and those of his kinky Belgian contemporary Félicien Rops see broomsticks being used for more than just flying. A witch stands nude in front of us in a Rodin drawing from about 1890, stroking her broom on her body with delight. Rops, too, displays a young witch reading from her magic book while wearing just her stockings and a broomstick between her legs.
The witch, on the other hand, has been reclaimed as a figure of power and independence in contemporary art by women. Francesca Woodman seems to be strangely hovering in a ruined chamber in Providence, Rhode Island, weaving the air with her arms as if casting a spell. She seems to be summoning the residents of this haunted mansion.
Perhaps she’s calling the victims of past witch trials in New England. Mirrors and fire are used in Betye Saar’s work Window of Ancient Sirens to conjure her demon sisters. Her work uses magical traditions from Africa and the Caribbean to animate items and re-enchant contemporary life.
Feminist art even transforms the notion of the malevolent black-clad elderly witch. In a shot by Lauren Lancaster, members of the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), which was started by anti-war demonstrators in 1968 and resurrected in 2016, cover their identities behind their pointed hats.
Witchcraft, on the other hand, is enjoyable because it enthusiastically embraces all aspect of its topic, from the magnificent to the ridiculous. You don’t need to purchase a stuffed goat, build an altar in your garage, or invite your neighbors to a swinging sabbath to agree that witches still have it tough three centuries after the European witch-hunt ended.
The majority of the creatures we enjoy on Halloween have no real-life counterparts. Vampires, ghosts, and Frankenstein’s monster are all fictional beings. However, tens of thousands of genuine people have been killed in the name of the witch stereotype that is popular at this time of year. And it’s possible that this is the most terrifying aspect about Halloween.
Thanks to Jonathan Jones at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.