We all know what a witch looks like. A gnarled old face full of warts with teeth missing and bright green skin. Then there’s the long black coat, the tall black hat and let’s not forget the sizable crooked nose, sniffing the fumes rising from a bubbling cauldron in a room festooned with cobwebs.
But that’s not what witches look like at all, or at least not according a hefty new art book being published in time for Halloween. In this compendium of witchy women, from Renaissance paintings to modern Wicca, the caricature of the evil hag is turned upside down. Witchcraft, the latest volume in Taschen’s Library of Esoterica, finds evidence from artists as diverse as Auguste Rodin and Kiki Smith for its revisionist view that witches are typically young, glamorous practitioners of highly sexualised magick. The cover painting, by Victorian artist JW Waterhouse, depicts the ancient enchantress Circe in pale, red-lipped pre-Raphaelite ecstasy – and the fun just keeps coming. The witches here are powerful feminist sex goddesses whose rites and incantations are joyously subversive.
There’s nothing respectably academic about Witchcraft. One of its editors is herself a witch and it includes photographs of 1960s and 70s Wiccans – practitioners of modern pagan magick. Consecration of Wine, Stewart Farrar’s misty monochrome 1971 photograph, portrays his wife, Janet, bare-breasted, filling a raised chalice in a modern ritual “meant to invoke the sacred union of male and female – the alchemical wedding”. Another photo shows a group known as the “Farrar coven” lying on their backs to form a pentagram in a British back garden in 1981.
Witchcraft’s thesis is completely convincing. In scouring the history of art to back up their modern-pagan perspective, the editors point to something remarkable. Artists over the centuries have created images of the witch far removed from the cackling stereotype established by witch trials and remembered in popular culture today without any respect for the women (and some men) who were killed in these mockeries of justice.
A work by Kiki Smith tries to show reverence to the victims of the witch-hunters. Her sculpture of a naked witch kneels on an unlit pyre, spreading her arms in triumph: a woman resurrected from this history of misogyny. Typically – at the height of the “witch craze”, which lasted from around 1570 to 1660 – people accused of witchcraft were older women who lived in poverty at the margins of rural communities. Better-off neighbours feared their supposed magical vengeance. Investigators such as England’s infamous Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, believed the witches met at a midnight sabbath and ate babies, exchanged animal familiars or “imps”, and had sex with Satan.
This stereotype was just as unrelated to reality as medieval Europe’s murderous caricature of Jewish people. Yet leafing through this book, you quickly see that even as elderly rural women were being demonised and burned alive, Renaissance artists saw witchcraft in a very different way. They associated it with desire, enchantment and female power.
One spread in the volume features Satisfaction – a 1984 painting by Shimon Okshteyn of a triumphant post-coital “modern siren” as the caption has it – exulting in presumably witchy erotic power. It is juxtaposed with a 15th-century German painting by an unknown artist of a naked woman performing a spell in her room. A man appears at the door, spying on the nude witch. He’s in big trouble, you can’t help feeling. He’s going to get a magical punishment simply for seeing this witch dancing at her private rituals. But warts, ugly nose, a familiar? No, this is one of the most sensual nudes in early Renaissance art.
That stress on the allure and attraction of witches is even more explicit in the work of the great German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. In 1497, Dürer made The Four Witches, an engraving that depicts fleshy nudes dancing in a round. They are delineated with a boldness he learned on a trip across the Alps to Venice. There he encountered not just the city’s sex workers who also worked as artist’s models, but the new classically influenced Italian art with its cult of the human body. But Dürer’s own desires make him anxious. Even as he draws these women naked – as if picturing respectable Nuremberg frauen with their clothes off – he seems to sense they are witches. At the back of the room, an open door reveals the devil, his fanged mouth hanging open as he watches his minions from a cellar that has become a portal of hell.
Even when he does portray an aged witch riding backwards on a goat, an image much more closely connected to the witch-hunt stereotype, Dürer gives her a retinue of Renaissance cupids to complicate things. He is not really interested in persecuting old peasants but in exploring the artistic and moral tensions between his love of the flesh and his fear of sin.
A painting by his pupil Hans Baldung Grien gives two witches an even more gracious youth and beauty. They pose glamorously, more like models than agents of the macabre. Another great German 16th-century artist, Lucas Cranach, was most paradoxical of all. He painted fetishistically gloved or bonily nude women as charismatic beings of sexualised power – while, as a magistrate, he would have been personally involved in executing “witches”. In the sado-masochist fantasy world of his art, he desires everything that in real life he persecuted.
If artists could enjoy the witch as much as this – while women accused of witchcraft were being burned for the threat they were thought to pose to Christian society – itis little wonder art became ever more enchanted by the subject once the persecution ceased. By the 18th century, burning witches seemed like cruel superstitious nonsense. Instead, they became fuel for fantasy. Erotic drawings by Rodin and his kinky Belgian contemporary Félicien Rops imagine other uses for broomsticks than flying. In a Rodin sketch from about 1890, a witch faces us with her naked legs apart, rubbing her broom against her body with pleasure. Rops, too, depicts a young witch with a broomstick between her legs while she reads from her spell book wearing only her stockings.
In modern art by women, however, the witch has been reclaimed as a figure of power and freedom. Francesca Woodman poses eerily in a ruinous room in Providence, Rhode Island, almost floating, weaving the air with her arms, as if performing a spell. She seems to be conjuring up the inhabitants of this haunted house. Maybe she’s summoning the victims of New England’s bygone witch-hunts. Betye Saar’s installation Window of Ancient Sirens uses mirrors and fire to invoke her demon sisters. Her art openly embraces African and Caribbean magical traditions to animate objects and re-enchant modern life.
Even the stereotype of the evil black-clad old witch is transformed by feminist art. Members of the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) – originally founded by anti-war protesters in 1968 and recreated in 2016 – hide their identities under their pointy hats in a photograph by Lauren Lancaster.
But the fun of Witchcraft is its enthusiastic embrace of every side of its subject, from the sublime to the silly. You don’t have to buy a stuffed goat, set up an altar in your garage and invite the neighbours to a swinging sabbath to agree that witches get a rough ride three centuries after the European witch-hunt ended. At Halloween, most of the monsters we delight in have no connection to reality. Vampires, ghosts and Frankenstein’s monster are creatures of the imagination. But tens of thousands of real human beings were put to death in the name of the witch stereotype that is touted around for fun at this time of year. And that could well be the most horrifying thing about Halloween.