This coming week, in my series on paintings of Shakespeare’s plays, we reach the tragedy of Macbeth, famous for its scene involving three witches. So this weekend I look at some other paintings of witches and their dark arts and crafts.
Although prints of witches have long proved popular, patrons prepared to pay masters to paint them scenes of witches seem to have been fewer in number. Their equivalent in classical myths, sorceresses such as Medea and Circe, have been enduringly popular, though; I’ll save those for another time.
One of the earlier images of witchcraft is among the few of Agostino Tassi’s easel paintings to have survived. His Landscape with a Scene of Witchcraft (1620-44) shows an enigmatic view of witches at work on either side of a body of water. The woman in the left foreground is holding a rod in a small fire, and is surrounded by the objects of her craft. On the other side, several figures are at work around another fire.
Later in the seventeenth century, Domenicus van Wijnen explored this theme more explicitly in The Witches’ Sabbath by Moonlight, which is set in a moonlit Italian landscape. This combines many of the now-classical symbols associated with ‘the dark arts’, and is taking place at an outdoor altar set up at the foot of the gallows, on which a dead body hangs.
Two women are shown as witches: an older one riding a horned goat facing backwards, who is leaping over a very large smoking cauldron, and a younger woman at the left, who has a wand in her left hand and is accompanied by a boy. Clustered in front of the altar at the right is a soldier in armour, who is looking in a mirror at the image of another, and another woman who is kneeling, and holding a snake in her right hand.
Nearby is the dead body of a robber, his gun by his head, an infant, and a cat. The surface of the altar has been prepared with bread and wine, and there is a small chimera by it. A bat flies in the distance, and a transparent figure is passing through a hoop mounted on top of the gallows.
In The Witchmaster, also set in the Italian countryside at night, van Wijnen has adjusted the symbolic objects, removing the altar and making the supervising witch into a bearded man. There are three novel introductions: a wild boar breathing fire, references to images in the form of a reflection in a mirror of the woman at the lower left corner, and an odd viewing box in the centre of the foreground, which has a painting within the painting.
Paradoxically, it wasn’t until the Age of Enlightenment that patrons appear to have become fascinated enough by witches and their craft to commission paintings of them. My best example is of Francisco Goya, who painted a succession of scenes of witchcraft for members of the Spanish royal court at the end of the eighteenth century.
Goya’s Witches’ Sabbath from 1797-98, painted for the Duchess of Osuna, is perhaps the clearest vision of a “witches’ sabbath” from this period. His devil is a billy goat with lyre-shaped horns and evil human-like posture, and above that are several dark shapes of flying bats.
Goya’s Witches’ Flight (1798) shows three witches levitating in the air, while carrying a naked body, which they appear to be exorcising. Below them are a donkey and another two human figures, one shrouded in a white sheet to cover their eyes, the other lying on the ground covering their ears – a possible reference to Goya’s own deafness and tinnitus at the time.
Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat), painted when Goya was in his seventies, refers back to those earlier paintings for the Duchess of Osuna, with the black-cloaked figure of the devil incarnate as a billy-goat, sat in front of a mass of hideous women gathered at their Sabbath.
The interest of artists and intellectuals in witches and their craft only grew in the nineteenth century. The first part of Goethe’s hugely popular drama Faust was published in 1808, and quickly attracted the attention of painters and illustrators.
Several artists have produced composite fantasy views of the play’s climactic Walpurgis Night centred on the figure of Gretchen. Theodor von Holst’s Fantasy Based on Goethe’s ‘Faust’ (1834) puts Mephistopheles beside her as she stirs a witches’ cauldron. Holst was a Latvian who settled in London in 1807, where he became a pupil of Henry Fuseli, and followed his teacher’s themes and style.
In 1816-17, following his ostracisation over alleged incest with his half-sister, Lord Byron wrote Manfred: A Dramatic Poem. Its eponymous hero is tortured by guilt in relation to the death of his beloved Astarte. Living in the Bernese Alps, he casts spells to summon seven spirits to help him forget and sublimate his guilt. As the spirits cannot control past events, he doesn’t achieve his aim, and cannot even escape by suicide. In the end, he dies.
John Martin’s watercolour shows Manfred conjuring a witch from a flooded cave in the mountains. Unusually light and sublime but (exceptionally for this artist) not apocalyptic, it is perhaps one of Martin’s most beautiful works, and reminiscent of Turner’s alpine paintings.