As we approach Halloween, the British Museum has put on an exhibition of witches and wicked bodies as shown throughout history.
It’s an exhibition that is both educational, both art and history as well as being a visual feast for fans of medieval and later print artwork.
Witches were one aspect of the demonisation of non-pagan beliefs and of women in general, and the drawings on display veer between the evil seductress female form to the wizened old hag of the classic witch.
Witches fly on broomsticks or backwards on dragons or beasts, as in Albrecht Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat of 1501, or Hans Baldung’s Witches’ Sabbath from 1510. They are often depicted within cave-like kitchens surrounded by demons, performing evil spells, or raising the dead within magic circles, as in the powerful work of Salvator Rosa, Jacques de Gheyn and Jan van der Velde.
The drawings are also educational warnings, with the symbol of the goat used to remind people of the evils of lust, while traditional signs of storms a reminder that witches were said to control the weather, mainly for ill. In an age when farming was the majority occupation, bad weather was particularly dangerous, and being able to blame a hailstorm on an unpleasant woman in the village a useful scapegoat.
A drawing by Zacharias Dolendo of a hag like witch eating out her own heart in envy is an analogue to the Christian symbol of the Pelican reviving the dead by biting its own chest to release blood to revive its dead offspring. Showing how the witches ape, but also pervert Christian virtues.
Probably the most spectacular print on display was the Temptation of St Anthony, made in 1635, which shows a gigantic dragon vomiting forth its offspring over a land defiled by smoke and armies, as the saint seeks protection behind a cross.
Obviously, one of the most famous images of witches is from “the Scottish play”, and it was John Raphael Smith’s drawing of the Weird Sisters in 1785 that cemented the classic depiction in modern minds of the three witches working in unison to entrap Macbeth.
Later, as medieval fears of witches faded into fables and tales to tell children, the witch was used in the great age of political satire as a metaphor for the politicians of the age.
Gillray’s Phantasmagoria showed three leading politicians of the age as the three witches, brewing up a desiccated Britannia as a skeleton. It was a reference to how many saw the Peace of Amiens as a sell out by the British government to the old-enemy in France.
More recently, images such as Sensuality by Franz von Stuck might look more familiar as a precursor to early erotic photography, which also used the snake motif. The witches seemingly living on in art and turned unto erotica for Victorian gentlemen to secretly collect.
Witches hadn’t entirely died out though, and the last witch to be jailed in the UK took place as recently as 1944. The Witchcraft Act of 1735 itself was only repealed in 1951, and only in the UK mainland. It is still illegal to be a witch in Northern Ireland.
You can see the display of witches and wicked women in less clandestine manner than our forbears in the prints room at the British Museum until 11th January.
Entry is free.