How Witches Cast Their Spell on Art History
At the intersection of spooky season and global feminism, we have witches. The term “witch” is a handy one, historically applied by the patriarchy to justify the punishment of basically any woman who thwarts the dictates of conventional society and gender relations, but has also been characterized in myth and art for centuries. With Halloween just weeks away, join us in a spooky survey of fine art witches.
Reaching back into Greek mythology, we have Medea, sorceress and mortal acolyte of the goddess Hecate. When she meets Jason during his adventures with the Argonauts, they fall in big love — but when he throws her over to marry King Creon’s daughter, Creusa, Medea goes full witch on the situation. Hades hath no fury like a witch scorned: Medea poisons Creusa and murders the children she produced with Jason. In a painting by the Spanish artist Germán Hernández Amores in Madrid’s Museo del Prado, we find her fleeing on a golden chariot, carrying her dead children.
In a print from a 19th-century etching on zinc by Mexican lithographer José Guadalupe Posada, part of the collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a witch on a broom is also portrayed carrying a child away. Posada is known for his iconic social satire renderings of calaveras, or skulls, that have become ubiquitous features of Día de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) in Mexico.
In the Greek canon, Medea is not the only famous witch. There’s also Circe, sometimes hailed as “the first witch,” a minor goddess with a major understanding of potions and herbs as well as a magic staff that she used to transform her foes and rivals into animals. She is depicted living her absolute best life in a painting by Wright Barker, surrounded by lions and foxes that were presumably once her enemies. It looks like she’s just blown us a kiss. “Mwah!” she seems to say. “Fuck around and find out.” I cannot stress this enough: Do not make enemies of witches.
Turning to more Biblical fare, the Old Testament tells of the Witch of Endor, a sort of metaphysical consultant who summoned the spirit of the prophet Samuel at the behest of Saul, who was seeking advice on how to defeat the Philistines. Instead, Samuel tells Saul he is doomed. This is not the fault of the Witch of Endor, but I bet Saul found a way to blame her. People are always blaming things on witches, as the Salem Witch Trials famously demonstrate.
According to art history, when they’re not busy ruining the lives of their ex-husbands and summoning spirits, witches like to get back to basics: riding backwards on a hell-goat. That’s the scene we see here in an enchanting engraving by Albrecht Dürer, also from The Met. I’m assuming that the little cupids at her feet tried to cupid-splain about moon cycles and got rightfully stomped.
Another thing witches like to do is to lunge out at people and prophecy doom. And truly, whomst among us has not, on occasion, seen some dumb couple going about their hetero-normative lives and felt compelled to lean in and whisper through our rotting teeth that all they love will soon perish under the apocalypse sun? Just me? No way! Check out a prime example in this lithograph by Henri-Charles-Antoine Baron. If you can’t take the heat, stop sneaking off to play tambourine in the forest. I’m trying to forage, here.
Of course, nobody prophesies doom more poetically than the Bard’s witches, simply known as First, Second, and Third Witch. The opening scene of Macbeth belongs to them, letting everyone know from the jump that this is going to be a twisted tale of a soul dragged down by evil. Being a witch is a lot of double, double, toil and trouble, but it all feels worth it around a fireside chant with friends.
Here’s our theatrical trio scaring the kilt of Macbeth in a work by the British portrait painter George Romney, part of the collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Naturally, witches as subject matter were endless fodder for Francisco de Goya, whose general vibe is, in academic terms, dark as fuck. It’s hard to pick a favorite, from “A Scene from El Hechizado por Fuerza (‘The Forcibly Bewitched’)” to several renditions of witches’ Sabbath in the Black Paintings series, to a colorful and old-fashioned goat-worshipping. So let’s not pick a favorite! It’s spooky season, and if you have a problem with this gallery of Goya witches, take it up with my editor and prepare to get turned into a lion or possibly a fox, depending on my mood.
On a more serious note, let’s not forget that real, living people were persecuted, tortured, and killed on the pretext that they practiced witchcraft, and that legacy is one of many stains on our collective history. Between the years 1500 and 1660, up to 80,000 accused witches were put to death in Europe alone, and around 80% of them were women.
The terror that suspected witches suffered at the hands of mobs and political tyrants can only be imagined, but this canvas by Scottish painter John Pettie captures a sense of it.
It is something to reflect upon today, as women are still persecuted for perceived infractions to the patriarchal social order. It seems we are always at risk that the invocation of “witch” — however it may be framed in contemporary terms — might drag us underfoot. I joke, I seek solace in art, but the news (or shocking lack thereof) is the kind of thing that really makes a girl want to get in her sieve and sail far, far away.
As you may have gathered from the list above, a lot of men painted witches. (Coincidence? I think not.) It’s a good opportunity to highlight the work of Remedios Varo, the Spanish-born Mexican Surrealist who was fascinated with witchcraft and the occult. In fact, Varo and fellow artists Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna were reportedly referred to as las tres brujas — “the three witches” — during their exile in Mexico. The 1957 painting “Witch Going to the Sabbath” depicts one of Varo’s distinctive mesmerizing creatures, surrounded by what appears to be fiery-red plumage. Bewitching, you might say.