Lachlan Goudie, son of the Scottish figurative painter Alexander Goudie, is an artist himself. In 1999, Alexander finished a cycle of paintings based on Robert Burns’ 1791 narrative poem, Tam o’ Shanter, about a farmer led astray by a young and beautiful witch, Nannie Dee. He was strongly influenced by the work of Albrecht Dürer and Francisco Goya.
His father’s obsession led Lachlan to further explore the depiction of witches in art. Secret Knowledge: The Art of Witchcraft is a 30-minute documentary, broadcast on BBC4, which draws heavily on Witches & Wicked Bodies, a new exhibition at Edinburgh’s National Gallery.
Lachlan Goudie argues that there was a shift from the perception of witches as seductresses in ancient times, to the emergence of ‘hags’ in the Middle Ages. Necromancy and witchcraft were regarded with suspicion in the Old Testament. Nonetheless, King Saul summoned the Witch of Endor to raise Samuel’s ghost, in order to divine the outcome of the coming battle with the Philistines.
Circes and Medea were the most prominent witches in Greek mythology. In Britain, Arthurian legend formed our image of the witch – and later, translations of Goethe’s Faust (such as Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play, Dr Faustus.)
The terrible era of the mass European witch-craze began with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487. Albrecht Dürer and other artists found inspiration – and profit – in creating lurid images to match the horrific stories of witches and their victims.
Germany, in particular, was a hotbed of accusations. Dürer’s 1497 engraving, The Four Witches, shows a group of attractive, naked women (and as Lachlan notes, ‘Nudity was the Devil’s dress-code.’)But the main figure in his Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat (1500) is older, and uglier.
In Allegory of Melancholy, a 1528 painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, ‘melancholy’ is personified as a young mother, oblivious to the vicious dog playing with her children, and the parade of witches riding horses in the clouds.
In 1590, King James I of Scotland attended the trials of the North Berwick Witches, who allegedly raised storms to destroy him as he returned from a honeymoon in Denmark. He published a highly influential book about witchcraft, Daemonologie, in 1597. It was, Lachlan Goudie remarks, ‘a crucible for witch-hunting’.
Isobel Gowdie, tried in 1662, near the end of the witch-craze, is perhaps the most intriguing of Scottish witches. A young Highland housewife, her confession – given without torture, though no doubt under extreme stress – provides one of the most detailed explorations of witchcraft lore ever recorded.
Franz Francken II’s 1606 painting, Witches’ Sabbath, reveals a coven assembled for the Sabbath inside a witches’ kitchen. The two beautiful, well-dressed young witches sitting by a cauldron may be courtesans. Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath – a 1610 engraving by Andries Jacobsz Stock – shows an orgiastic gathering under a volcanic sky, linking a natural disaster to witchcraft.
After James was crowned King of England in 1601, witchcraft laws were reinforced. He later became more doubtful, even declaring some witch trials fraudulent. Scepticism was growing across the continent; and while Salvator Rosa’s 1646 painting, Witches at Their Incantations, may be grotesque, it also verges on parody. The Temptation of St Anthony, a 1745-7 etching by Jacques- Philippe Le Bas, drew on the artist’s own observations of peasant life to recreate the hermit’s tribulations.
The Spanish romantic painter, Francisco Goya, transposed witch beliefs into the 18th century. His images were dark and terrifying, but they also contained an element of social satire. As Lachlan observes, Goya exposed ‘the shame of sex, the shame of illness, and the vulnerability of old age.’ His 1798 painting, The Forcibly Bewitched, shows a superstitious cleric covering his mouth as he enters a witch’s bedroom. And a provocative 1799 etching, Pretty Teacher, shows two witches – one young, one old – riding on a broomstick.
King James was a patron of William Shakespeare’s theatre company, whose play Macbeth – written around 1605-6, and staged in 1611 – reflected the king’s concerns about witchcraft and conspiracy. The play’s witches, or ‘Weird Sisters’, influenced many artists. John Runciman’s 1768 ink drawing shows three bald women, whispering. Daniel Gardner’s Three Witches From Macbeth (1775) is more glamorous, but his casting of eminent figures (including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire) suggests a political in-joke. In 1785, John Raphael Smith‘s Weird Sisters depicted three hooded, elderly women, pointing. Their large noses and hairy chins fit the caricature of a pantomime crone. Goudie describes the effect as ‘high camp.’
The visionary art of William Blake was a notable exception to this trend. In The Whore of Babylon (1809), based on the biblical tale, the temptress – a symbol of corruption – sits imperviously upon a multi-headed beast (her magical familiar) as it devours the ordinary citizens of London. Blake’s work, Goudie observes, ‘haunts the borderlands between dreams and reality…subverting the order of the world.’
Theodor Von Holst also drew on literature for his 1834 painting, Fantasy Based on Goethe’s ‘Faust’. A pupil of Fuseli, he shows the demon Mephistopheles, and Faust’s dazed young love, Gretchen, standing around a cauldron.
Pre-Raphaelite artists like Frederick Sandys reinvented the witch as a romanticised femme fatale. His Medea (1866-68) was modelled on his gypsy lover, Keomi. So distracting is Medea’s beauty, that it takes a moment to notice she is concocting a poison to destroy her rival for Jason’s affections. Vivien (1863) depicts the lovely sorceress who tricks Merlin into revealing his magic.
John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle (1886) shows another enigmatic witch, her mood as elusive as her facial expression. By the late Victorian era, mysticism was in vogue. In this ‘sophisticated, literary world’, Goudie reflects, ‘the witch has lost her bite.’
Other than his father’s work, Goudie does not consider the twentieth century art which also features in the exhibition. James George Fraser’s 1890 book, The Golden Bough (1890) and Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Modern Europe (1921) both posited the theory of a more benign witchcraft, with its root in an ancient pagan religion.
While controversial, these ideas laid the foundation for the Wiccan movement that gained ground in England during the 1950s. Feminism has also spurred new perspectives, argues Diane Purkiss in her cultural study, The Witch in History (2004.)
Paul Delvaux’s The Call of the Night (1938) uses surrealist dream imagery of nude witches in a desolate landscape, rooted in earth and trapped in our gaze. More recently, the Brazilian painter Ana Maria Pacheco has combined demonology and magical lore with disturbing psycho-sexual undertones.
Early photographers like John Cimon Warburg (The Incantation, 1901) and Clarence Hudson White(The Watcher, 1906) used special effects to create stylised, ethereal portraits. Postmodern artists such as Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith have become their own subject, disguised as witches for the camera.
The dark, playful vision of Paula Rego recalls another Spanish artist, Goya. Straw Burning is part of a series of etchings which accompanied Blake Morrison’s poetry collection, Pendle Witches (1996.) Rego’s work is political, addressing feminist issues and exposing injustice.
‘Is there something in their magic that artists envy?’ Goudie asks of these artists, who ‘mix paints like potions.’ Secret Knowledge: The Art of Witchcraft can be viewed on BBC iPlayer until Wednesday, September 18th. (It is also available on Youtube.)
‘Alexander Goudie and the Witch From Robert Burns’ Poem‘, blog by Lachlan Goudie for the BBC website, 2013.
‘Bewitched: Salvator Rosa’s Satanic Art‘, Jonathan Jones, The Guardian, 2010.
The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, Emma Wilby, 2010.