Five artworks from the British Museum's Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition

By Culture24 Reporter | 25 September 2014

As the British Museum opens its Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition, spook yourself with five artworks to look out for in the show

An image of an etching showing various biblical figures and beasts within a kind of storm
Agostino Veneziano (circa 1490-1540), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). A Witch Riding Skeleton (circa 1520). Engraving© The Trustees of the British Museum
Efforts to understand and interpret seemingly malevolent deeds – as well as apportion blame for them and elicit confessions through hideous acts of torture – have had a place in society since classical antiquity and Biblical times.

Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery. The magus, or wise practitioner of “natural magic” or occult “sciences”, has traditionally been male, but the majority of those accused and punished for witchcraft, especially since the Reformation, have been women.

They are shown as monstrous hags with devil-worshipping followers. They represent an inversion of a well-ordered society and the natural world.

An image of an orange and black etching showing various nude witchy figures in a forest
Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545), The Witches’ Sabbath (1510). Chiaroscuro woodcut, orange brown© The Trustees of the British Museum
While historical broadsides document the long and cruel history of witch persecution in Europe, advances in print technology created a burst of disturbing imagery and literature from about 1500.  

Witch trials intensified during periods of social unrest and religious conflicts during the 16th and 17th centuries, when Protestants and Catholics alike were preoccupied with religious heresy.

Striking single-sheet prints were first made by the Renaissance printmakers Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien, rapidly becoming a niche market for collectors.

The Witches' Sabbath is a colour woodcut print that depicts four nude female figures sitting on the ground with a cauldron.

The cauldron is emitting big plumes of smoke and traces of a potion with frogs round the figures, the ground is littered with bones and pitchforks and to the right of the image a cat is sitting with its back turned.

In the night sky are another two witches: one barely visible, the other riding a goat and carrying a pitchfork with another cauldron and animal bones.  

An image of a black and white etching showing various small nude cherubic figures
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), A witch riding backwards on a goat, with four putti, two carrying an alchemist's pot, a thorn apple plant (circa 1500). Engraving© The Trustees of the British Museum
The figure of a witch riding backwards on a goat in Baldung’s work is said to have been inspired by Dürer’s engraving of the very same name.

Made in about 1500, A witch riding backwards on a goat depicts how witchcraft was thought to reverse the natural order of things, so the hair of the witch streams out in one direction, while the goat and the trail of drapery indicate the opposite direction.

Witches were also shown as bewitching seductresses intent on ensnaring their male victims, as seen in a wonderful etching by Giovanni Battista Castiglione of Circe, who turned Odysseus’ companions into beasts.

An image of a black and white etching showing three witches with brooms and a stall
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746 - 1828), They spin finely (Hilan Delgado), Los Caprichos, plate 43 (1799). Etching, aquatint, drypoint and burin© The Trustees of the British Museum
By contrast, Goya turned the subject of witches into an art form all of its own, whereby grotesque women conducting hideous activities on animals and children were represented in strikingly beautiful aquatint etchings.

Goya used them as a way of satirising divisive social, political and religious issues of his day.

An image of an etching showing witches in cloaks looking upwards shrouded in darkness
John Raphael Smith, after Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), The Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth (1785). Mezzotint© The Trustees of the British Museum
During the 18th century, Fuseli’s Weird Sisters from Macbeth influenced generations of theatre-goers, and illustrations of Goethe’s Faust were popularised by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863).

By the end of the 19th century, hideous old hags with distended breasts and snakes for hair were mostly replaced by sexualised and mysteriously exotic sirens, seen in the exhibition in the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and Odilon Redon (1840-1916).

  • Witches and Wicked Bodies is at the British Museum, London until January 11 2015. Visit the exhibition online.

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