The Season of the Witch is half over and there is so much yet to explore. Soon I hope to take you on a literary journey of the witch as character, but in the meantime, I have enlisted some help.
I could think of no one better to dive deep into the canvas and uncover the evolution of the witch in art than Aesthetically Hoarded. For the uninitiated, Aesthetically Hoarded is an Instagram account dedicated to art history, run by a human named Sean based in Liverpool, UK. Sean describes himself as “a ‘failed’ artist” who still “love[s] the stuff and take[s] great joy in sharing art with people.” Having studied art in Liverpool, Sean has curated an inexhaustible digital library, which he shares in informative, bite-sized chunks with a devilish streak of dark humour.
“For me,” Sean explains, “Gothic brings to mind images of churches and gargoyles, specifically Whitby […] with it’s ties to Dracula and wind beaten churches and cathedrals.” Whilst Whitby, vampires and architecture may not be persistent features of the Aesthetically Hoarded collection – it’s not all dark and certainly not all Gothic – Gothic art and the Gothic within art do make appearances nonetheless.
The witch is one such Gothic figure present in art across genres… and that is my cue to step aside and hand the keyboard over to Sean who will guide us through the history of witches in western art…
𝖂𝖎𝖙𝖈𝖍𝖊𝖘 𝖎𝖓 𝖂𝖊𝖘𝖙𝖊𝖗𝖓 𝕬𝖗𝖙
The modern image we have today of witches has evolved through many different iterations in art since the 15th century. Originally conceived almost as a religious dig at a specific sect of Christianity known as the ‘Waldensians’, the first recorded image of a witch in western art was in the margins of a manuscript of the 1451 poem, Le Champion des Dames. The sect was seen as heretical and rumours were that Waldensian women rode around on brooms at night.
Although originally created in derision at a sect of Christianity, the idea quickly evolved, and the heretical nature of the Witch became magnified. Around the end of the 15th century you start seeing images of witches riding goats and cavorting naked in groups (the horror).
The most interesting development in all of this, bar the Satanic, is of the ‘witch’s coven.’ Now we start to see the real fear: women en masse, talking, being free. It’s incredible to see this male paranoia manifest.
The paranoia and hysteria grew more and more as the witch trials became a reality. Art showed what men feared: independent, literate women congregating – the devil surely must be involved! Now here comes the best bit, the image of witches and their Satanic frolicking became so ridiculous to the art world, artist started to mock the very idea of witches in their art.
Artists like Goya and Salvator Rosa mocked the superstitious and uneducated, creating these wonderful scenes of caricatured witchcraft, which, if I’m honest, were more influential on the image we have of witches today than anything else.
As time went on and practising witchcraft was decriminalised (incidentally the witch trials didn’t truly end until 1834… yeah…) depictions of witches softened. Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle, for example, perfectly illustrates a romantic view of witches. She is a woman, beautiful, and mastering things men couldn’t conceive of. He even gave her a coven, although it is in the background, in a cave. As the paranoia subsided so did the severity and brutal nature of witches in art.
Modern witches in art have entered myth. No longer are they considered something to believe in or fear, hence more whimsical images appear, such as Ida Rentoul Outhwaite’s series of witches from Fairy Land.
More recently there has been a resurgence in interest in witches and witchcraft, probably fuelled in part by the book Circe by Madeline Miller. Ultimately, to me at least, witches in art have gone from male paranoia of women’s power, to an empowering image of the power women do have. Much like the sphinx of myth (which is half-woman, half-lion, and the personification of man’s fear of women, power, and beauty) sadly it took far too long for people to realise that the witch is nothing to be feared.
It seems to me (Generally Gothic here again, hi!) that, just like in history, the witch in art has evolved from an emblem of religious persecution to the embodiment of female empowerment. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or on Instagram.
I, for one, am bewitched by the synchronicity between art and history, with a huge thank you to Sean for this spell-binding piece! You can find Sean’s full and growing collection on Flickr, and follow him on Instagram where he is “always willing to chat about art,” share knowledge, and hopes that “you find at least some enjoyment in the art and artists [he] show[s,]” which I’m certain you will!
If you’d like to see your work featured here – whether you’re a blossoming expert, a self-made specialist, or want a reason to research – reach out! I’m also open to collaborations and would love to see your creative, um… creations (poetry, short fiction, artwork, photography) too!
In case you missed, it I’m hosting a Daphne du Maurier vintage giveaway, in honour of the literary witch’s birthday. Find all the info here.
Keep reading: The Anatomy of Melancholy and the Artist, The Physician, the Philosopher, the Poet, and ‘Break this Chrysalis Open and Extract my Embryonic Soul’. Or, keep things witchy with past Season of the Witch posts.
2 thoughts on “Aesthetically Hoarded Guest Post: Witches of Western Art”
Brilliant article with an exciting opportunity-which I took-to discover a fellow creative in the form of Aesthetically Hoarded.
As is outlined in this article, I believe there are multiple reasons for this behaviour towards so-called witches. After beginning research on witch trials I discovered that motivation behind prosecution, incarceration and sentencing was often more political than purely sexist. During the Pendle witch trials (1612) where, admittedly, most of the accused were women, that did not stop a prominent figure’s brother being hanged for witchcraft in the same year.
Also notable is the case of one single day in 1675 Torsåker, Sweden, that closed with 71 hysteria-fuelled executions. Six of the “witches” put to death there were men.
Thank you, Language Nerd! I’m happy to have facilitated the introduction.
You make an important point, and I agree that men persecuted for witchcraft are far less “celebrated” than women. When I visited Salem, I was similarly surprised to find that a number of men had been amongst the executed.
I am not aware of this Swedish case – it sounds awful! I’ll have to find out more. Thank you for sharing.