The Witches

I was inspired to write this entry by reading the introduction to Mona Chollet’s book “Sorcières, la puissance invaincue des femmes” (no English translation as yet, I was reading in Polish). I was particularly surprised by a short passage on the works of several sixteenth-century artists from northern Europe.

„The hate obsession of some painters (Quentin Massys, Hans Baldung, Niklaus Manuel) […] with old women can be explained by the cult of youth which developed in that epoch and by the fact, that women already then lived longer than men”

– translation mine
Niklaus Manuel Deutsch, The Witch, 1518, drawing, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin

This description concerns the way the female body is presented and appears in the context of the witches’ images created at that time. To this group I would add Albrecht Dürer, whose drawing The Witch from around 1500 fits into the problem discussed by the author and presents one of the first modern images of a witch. The artist was probably inspired by folk stories about the supernatural abilities of witches, which were to be acquired through a pact with impure forces.

Albrecht Dürer, The Witch, ca. 1500, engraving, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Hans Baldung called Grien (ca. 1484-1545) is considered one of the most talented students of Albrecht Dürer. He came from a family of academics and intellectuals and as an artist he received orders mainly from the intellectual elite of Strasbourg. Apart from religious themes, an important place in his work is occupied by performances of witches. It is difficult to unequivocally define what was at the root of this interest. Certainly, however, the times in which he lived provided him with a lot of inspiration.

Hans Baldung Grien, Dwie czarownice, 1523, Städel Museum, Frankfurt nad Menem

In 1487 the Hammer for Witches (Malleus Maleficarum) by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger was published, its popularity exceeded all expectations. The book offered many “practical” tips on how to recognize and annihilate witches, and was treated as a textbook in witch trials (to this day it is referred to by Google as a literature of fact (sic!)). Also, the emergence of the Reformation, together with its literal reading of the Holy Scripture, increased interest in suspicion of witchcraft – according to the Old Testament’s command “not to let a witch live” (Exodus 22, 17). These phenomena went hand in hand with a strictly fairy tales treatment of the figure of a witch known from folklore stories. Visions of casting charms, flying naked on a broomstick and cooperating with Satan fertilised the imaginations during that time. It seems that Baldung drew most inspiration from the latter.

Hans Baldung Grien, The Witches, 1510, chiaroscuro woodcut, Metropolitan Museum in New York

On an exquisite woodcut made in chiaroscuro technique is depicted the sabbath of witches. It was imagined as a gathering of naked women of all ages, who perform their magic in a secluded place. Some of them are sitting around a pot where a magic potion is brewed, others are floating above this group. One of them is riding backwards a goat, just like an old witch on a drawing by Baldung’s teacher – Dürer. Here we see women of different ages and skin limpness.

Baldung referred to this property of the body to depict the seven stages of a woman’s life. Changes in physicality were linked by him to entering new stages of life (they would also result from motherhood). Women, if they lived to old age, most often had several births behind them and had limited possibilities to support skin firmness. Showing this in paintings did not necessarily have to be associated with a hateful obsession.

Hans Baldung Grien, Seven stages of woman’s life, 1514, Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig

In a slightly different context, an old woman appears in Quentin Massys (1466-1530) works. Unlike the artists mentioned above, he was not from Germany, but from the Netherlands. His works are mainly religious paintings. Chollet probably refers to one of his most recognizable, though unique, works – the Old Woman, also known as the Ugly Duchess.

Quentin Massys, Ugly Duchess, ca. 1513, National Gallery London

He shows in an exaggerated way the figure of an old and quite ugly woman, exhibiting her charms frayed by time. Her dress has deep cleavage and she holds a flower in her hand, which is still in the bud. It symbolizes both the age of puberty and the promise of fidelity and readiness to marry. The artist used a grotesque approach – he consciously referred to the convention of a fiancé portrait, at the same time emphasizing the age of the portrayed person. This is evidenced by the woman’s outfit, which refers to the fashion of the Burgundy court from over a century ago. Thus, we are dealing here with archaisation acting in the service of satire. The figure of an old woman is not a portrait of a specific person, but a figure symbolically embodying the lack of common sense, acting against the accepted rules and as such she is ridiculed.

In order to better understand the allegorical dimension of this grotesque depicting, it is worth reaching to the Praise of the Folly by Erasmus of Rotterdam. In one of the chapters, this highly regarded thinker ironically describes old women who, despite their age, still play coquettas and display their repulsive, saggy breasts. It should be remembered that in his work he spares no malice to any social group. However, this description reveals the rim of misogyny, so common in Early Modern times, from which even the great humanist was not saved.

Hans Baldung Grien, Aristotle and Phyllis, 1503, drawing, Louvre, Paris

I am still puzzled by the Chollet’s statement about the “hateful obsession with old women in some painters”. On the one hand, I agree that the ageing of women at no time has been presented positively, it has been a cause for ridicule. It has always been associated with the loss of the strongest weapon in a male-dominated world – an attractive appearance. On the other hand, the old female body is an effect of the real passage of time, its change is inevitable, and artists should show it in the same way as any other element of reality. The only thing that gives them the meaning is the context in which they are placed, and it is this context that should be confronted.

Hans Baldung Grien, Three stages of Woman’s Life and Death, 1541-1544, Museo del Prado, Madrid

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