I'm writing a novel about Cinaed mac Ailpin, the 9th century King of Pictavia (which was to become Scotland). This is a space for recording nuggets of research. Please feel welcome to get involved in the comments. I'm over on twitter too @GUGAW

Saturday, 10 January 2015


I scooted out to the British Museum to take a browse through the Witches and Wicked Bodies gallery before it finishes this weekend.  A portrayal of witches and witchcraft examined through art from the late 1400's through to the 1900's.  

Wild hair, bare breasts. Seduced men, demonic beasts. Fierce winds and malevolent intentions.

I took some photos of the images I found most striking, those which touched me.  When I zoomed into the images to interrogate the details all sorts of faces emerged in the etchings and drawings.  These are relatively small images, say A4-A3 size, so seeing these details would mean getting your face close to images and being absorbed in the intensity of the scenes.  Five images and detailed close ups below with descriptions from the British Museum.

Witches Sabbath

Witches Sabbath, Hans Baldung,  1510.  Colour woodcut from two blocks, the tone block in orange-brown
"The artist and printmaker Hans Baldung was Durer's most successful pupil.  This print is one of the most dramatic witch images ever produced.  It shows an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality, a subject with Baldung specialised.  It is likely that he found a ready market for such subjects in the affluent city of Strasbourg where he lived and worked.  The violent Witches' Hammer, written by Dominican inquisitors Kramer and Sprenger was first published in this city in 1487; by 1520 it had been reprinted fourteen times."

Design for a poster for Macbeth

Design for a poster for Macbeth, Edmund Dulac, 1911.  Watercolour and gum on paper
"Macbeth, his arms folded, challenges the three witches as they cast their spells from a steaming cauldron hidden below a rocky ledge on the 'blasted heath'.  Duluc designed this poster for a production of Shakespeare's play by Granville Barker in London in 1911.  Born and brought up in France, Dulac came to London in 1905 where he worked as an illustrator, designer and caricaturist.  Dulac's dark, sombre tones and use of Celtic lettering are in keeping with the period and mood of the tragic drama."

Landscape with Macbeth and Banquo

Landscape with Macbeth and Banquo, William Woollett after Francesco Zuccarelli, 1770, Etching
"Macbeth and Banquo are surrounded by windswept trees, in Scottish dress and armour, one leaning on his sword, the other gesturing outward with both arms, addressing the three witches.  The frightened horses on the right and a blast of lightning over a castle in the background emphasise this dramatic episode at the beginning of Shakespeare's play.  The landscape paintings of the Italian artist, Zuccarelli, were much sought after by the British collectors"
Note the chap running away in the background and what looks like a face within the tree. 

The Witch

The Witch, Richard Earlom after David Teniers the Younger, 1786, Mezzotint
"The witch with her upraised sword and stolen loot in basket and apron is Mad Meg (Dulle Griet) a Bruegelian hag so avaricious that she would even rob from hell.  Hades is indicated here by the triple-headed Cerebus at the mouth of a gloomy cave and the cowering demons include a horse-skull monster being ridden by an owl-headed devil.  The painting, now in a private collection and sometimes attributed to a follower of Teniers, David Ryckaert III, was formerly in the collection of Sir Joseph Reynolds.  He lent it to an exhibition under the title 'The witch coming out of hell'.  Reynolds made inferences to Teniers as a significant artist in his Discourses to the Royal Academy.  The majority of prints after Teniers' multiple scenes of witchcraft were made in the eighteenth century, witness to the continuing popularity of ghoulish spectacle long after the suppression of witch hunts and trials." 

The Sorceress

The Sorceress, Jan van de Velde II, 1626, Etching and engraving
"The hair of the witch standing within a magic circle wearing classical dress is swept forward by an evil wind, while she pours a stream of powder out of a horn with one hand and waves a wand with the other.  The parabolas of smoke arising from a burning house on the right reveal the influence of contemporary German artist Adam Elsheimer who loved to paint eerily-lit midnight pictures.  The main curves of smoke, however, stem from the twin pipes stuck in the bottom of an upside-down demon, and this makes a humorous reference to topical diatribes against the evils of smoking in the Netherlands.  James I of England (who as James VI of Scotland had been so strongly against witchcraft) also wrote a Counterblaste to Tobacco, 1604 whre he detailed the 'betwitching' and lust-enducing qualities of the vile and 'filthie custome'.  Every foul demon in this fire-lit print is smoking a pipe or drinking lustfully and the burlesque conflation of the heretical spectacle with social customs of the time adds a particularly Netherlandish flavour.  In spite of the fascination of artists with occult subjects, fewer witch trials took place in the Low Countries than the rest of Europe." 

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