Images of witchcraft have been a major focus for academics studying the Northern Renaissance with significant emphasis placed on the prints’ role in the the widespread witch-hunting and prosecution which took place at the end of the 16th century. Research has made close ties between the works of German artists Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien and the witch frenzy with little attention paid to the significant delay between the creation of the prints and the actual prosecution of women as witches. Dürer and Baldung’s prints were created around the turn of the 16th century while major persecutions of witches did not begin in Germany until the 1560s. Despite low numbers of prosecutions against witches during the early 16th century, the combination of new humanist interests in witches in addition to mounting fears and texts about witchcraft made the prints by Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien into dangerous manifestations of male anxiety which prompted a growing need for male control and prosecution of witches.
Around the beginning of the 16th century, the image of the witch gained popularity in Germany as artists noted the growing interest surrounding witchcraft and sorcery in academic circles. Translations of Lucan’s Civil War and Apuleius’ Golden Ass, two classical epic poems which included vivid accounts of witches and magic, lead to a fascination in ancient accounts of witches throughout German-speaking lands. For humanists, these classical poems and satires held hidden truths and the visualization of the witch captivated their imagination. The images were then connected to established anti-female rhetoric to begin forming the stereotype of women in their society as dangerous witches. The female-centric society of witches was fascinating for the community of elite men because they did not have access to it, but also they were the most vulnerable and had the most to lose to the threat of witchcraft. Noting the popularity of witchcraft among the well-educated elite, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien saw an opportunity to utilize a new subject to gain wealthy influential patrons. As they began creating the fantastical prints of witches and the inverse world they inhabited, they had little thought to the consequences of providing visualization of their patrons’ anxieties.
Albrecht Dürer began creating prints of witches as the subject gained popularity with humanists. His prints were aimed towards the educated upper class humanists, making references to classical sculpture and literature that would have been popular during the time. Dürer himself aspired to belong to the patrician class and his short-lived interest in witches most likely was a ploy to gain entrance into their circles. Most importantly though, the subject of the witch provided Dürer the space to display his skill and allow his imagination to run wild. His prints captivated imaginations with new iconography for witches never seen before that would influence later artists’ depictions of witches, including his former pupil Hans Baldung Grien. This new iconography shaped an image of witchcraft which displayed the true threat to society caused by witches and for many men served as a call to action.
Hans Baldung Grien trained with Albrecht Dürer in Nuremberg around 1505, just as Dürer’s interest in witchcraft was waning. Finishing his time with Dürer around 1507, he returned to his home in Strasbourg where he worked to establish himself outside of Dürer’s shadow. Baldung, like Dürer, was an active participant in the humanist culture and saw an opportunity to establish himself as the master artist in Strasbourg by appealing to the wealthy humanists with his prints of witches. He drew from the classical literature, often mixing it with well-known folklore, to create highly sexualized, dark, and emotional scenes which drew in humanists who were seeking visual representations of the witches they were reading about. At the same time, these rich prints provided verification of the horrifying truths about witches hidden within the texts. Baldung’s prints may appear humorous and bawdy, but beneath the humor remained the obscured truth and anxiety-inducing reality of witchcraft. Like Dürer, Baldung Grien utilized the image of the witch to gain notoriety and access to higher levels of society, creating vivid images of social disorder and violence which fascinated and horrified viewers. Much like the truths contained within the classical poetry and satire, Dürer and Baldung’s images displayed the obscured reality of uncontrolled women and witches for all to see.
What were these “hidden truths” that Dürer and Baldung exposed in their prints of witches? Fears were spreading throughout German-speaking lands not just amongst humanists, but were also propagated by the church through the publication of witch-hunting manuals. These manuals, such as the Malleus Maleficarum, described the hidden truth about witches and their behaviors to assist in the capture and prosecution of women believed to be witches. They also assisted in the growth of suspicion and anxiety about women in society. Witches were identified typically as unmarried women or widows who turned away from men, shutting themselves in, laying alone, or refusing men. At this time, marriage was considered the only acceptable state for a woman as alternatives such as monastic life were denounced. Those who rejected their duty to be a good Christian wife were considered a threat to social order. Once a woman was suspected of being a witch, men ascribed new anxieties on them which followed in the example of witches they read about in classical literature as well as in the contemporary witch-hunting manuals. These new anxieties, depicted vividly in the four prints by Dürer and Baldung, focused on witches’ interactions with the Devil, their deviant and dangerous sexuality, and their threat to fertility and motherhood.
Initially, there was no established link between witches and women, but most witch-hunting texts agreed upon the fact that women were more susceptible to the allure of the Devil and could be easily drawn into witchcraft. This was attributed to women’s weakness of faith, but also to women’s speech as a way of transmitting the Devil’s influence. By speaking with one another, it was believed women could spread evil knowledge and convert one another to serve the Devil. In the Malleus Maleficarum, Heinrich Kramer adds an authoritative voice to this fear by warning that witches
“have slippery tongues and are unable to conceal from their fellow women those things which by evil arts they know; and since they are weak, they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft.”(Hults, 69)
Furthermore, anxieties grew surrounding the nature of the relationship between the women and the Devil. The greatest threat of witchcraft was not the witches themselves, but their role as “surrogate demons.” Once they entered into the pact, the Devil was in control of them and they were subordinate to him and his authority much the same way women were under the control of their husbands or fathers. Albrecht Dürer captured men’s unease about the Devil’s influence over women visually in his print, Four Witches, which depicts four nude women conspiring under the control of a hidden demon. The panic of the Devil fulfilling the role of the husband only becomes clearer as concerns surrounding the sexual nature of women’s relationships with the Devil were investigated. In a 1558 witch trial, several of the questions aimed towards the guilty woman concerned her intimate relationship with the Devil and included questions such as whether intercourse with the Devil was better than with a natural man. Attention on women’s sexual acts, with and without the Devil, were a major focus of masculine angst and the sexuality of witches was a major literary and visual trope throughout the 15th and 16th centuries.
Women were understood to have inherent carnal lust that was uncontrollable and could only be kept under control by a virtuous man. This innate lustfulness was closely tied to beliefs of witchcraft. This belief was supported not only by the witch-hunting manuals which described the connections between women’s uncontrollable sexuality and witchcraft, but also the described dangers of the classical witches who seduced men only to harm or kill them. Women’s lust was used to illustrate their weakness of virtue and connection with sin and disorder. Due to the inherent nature of their carnality, any woman could be “infected” with witchcraft and pose a risk to powerful men who could fall victim to their allure. Much like the fear of the Devil replacing the role of the husband, many men feared women longer needed men for sexual pleasure. As witches were turning away from men, their fear of exclusion from these circles manifested in fears that women were participating in “deviant” homoerotic activities. The criminalization of same-sex desire made it an ideal subject for characterizing the evil and inverted nature of witches. In Hans Baldung Grien’s playful print, New Years Greeting with Three Witches, the bawdy scene of same-sex desire among women characterizes the panic these men felt about what women were doing outside of the surveillance of male authority. During this time, the only acceptable state for a young women was within a marriage and even in the context of marriage, any sexual behavior that did not lead to procreation was considered mortally sinful. Witches performing clitoral stimulation on themselves and each other fit into the visual display of the nervousness about women’s sexuality as well as the fear of women turning away from their expected role as virtuous wife and mother.
The final category of anxieties pertained to the aforementioned role of wife and mother. Marriage was the only suitable option for women and once married, women were expected to produce children. Witches were believed to pose a severe threat to fertility and reproduction, which was a key aspect of a successful Christian marriage. It was understood that witches had the ability to castrate men, making them impotent and unable to produce children. If men and women were unable to fulfill the sacrament and conceive a child as described in the Bible, there had to be a demonic explanation for what caused the issue. In the case where a couples were able to conceive, witches were still considered a threat to children’s mortality. In a testimony from an accused witch in 1435, she described the ways in which “unbaptized infants [were] killed by our ceremonies in their cradles.” In this way, witches did not have to be physically near the children for their evil to cause them harm. If a child died, even if from disease or natural causes, it was believed to be due to the intervention of a witch. Witches were thought to utilize the children they killed for ceremonies, such as the event depicted in Hans Baldung Grien’s The Witches’ Sabbath, where the fear of witches sacrificing children to the Devil is displayed through the inclusion of children’s bones. Anxieties about witches were men’s fears about women they could not control and as these concerns increased through the proliferation of narratives about witches in manuals, sermons, and folklore, the visual representations by Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien confirmed these fears by providing the iconography to identity the evil and uncontrolled women at the center of it all.
Whether Albrecht Dürer or Hans Baldung Grien believed in witches and witchcraft was not important to the creation of their works. Instead, the artists utilized these shocking images to gain popularity and patrons amongst the humanists with little concern for the ways the images magnified existing tensions in society. The typical image of the witch allowed for these artists to exercise a large amount of artistic license and practice artistic techniques, specifically depicting the female nude body. The prints incorporated the common visual tropes that were established in classical poetry and satire that were then reaffirmed by witch-hunting manuals; witches flying through the air, Sabbaths, conjuring potions, and deviant sexual activities. The four prints discussed in this paper provided new iconography and ideas for modern viewers about the appearance of witches and visualized the hidden truths about witches found in popular literature. The combination of the literature and these prints cemented anti-female rhetoric that expanded the stereotype of women as dangerous witches and a severe threat to society.
Albrecht Dürer’s Four Witches was one of the earliest sources of the developing iconography surrounding witchcraft. In the print, four nude women stand in a circle at the center of the print in an ambiguous space and a small demonic figure is seen in the background. Much of the anxiety shown in this print comes from the image of the group of women, stood together closely and facing each other. Their closed off space represented for many the exclusion of men from the female sphere, provoking discomfort about the secrets women may have been sharing among one another. The women were viewed as conspiratory and played into the anxiety about women’s talkativeness as the way they spread witchcraft and evil as discussed in connection with women’s relationship with the Devil. Their wickedness and danger is emphasized by the scattered bones around their feet, implying the deadly threat posed through the spread of witchcraft.This print is an early example of witchcraft imagery and draws significantly from the classical art and literature references that were well-known to the humanist scholars Dürer was attempting to impress. The four women make clear visual reference to ancient nude sculptures of goddesses in their posture and appearance. In her book, The Witch as Muse, Linda Hults refers to the four women as potentially Venus and the Graces. She argues that Dürer is showcasing the demonic side to Venus, a subject well-known amongst his humanist audience, as she was closely associated with carnal lust and debauchery. Hults also notes the way in which the nude women stand makes possible reference to the classical pose, venus pudica, in which Venus is shown covering her body with her hands.27
This pose was seen in ancient sculpture and would also be easily recognizable to Dürer’s educated audience. In the act of concealing their bodies, specifically their genitalia, Dürer emphasized the female body as mysterious, unknowable, and potentially dangerous. While the traditional venus pudica is understood to hide her body in shame and modesty, Laura Wiegert suggests that the obscurance of their genitalia as well as their hands also conceals their actions. Rather than hiding their bodies in shame, the four witches are hiding their deviance from the male viewer of the print. She posits that the women may be participating in homosexual activities through clitoral stimulation, adding to the fear that the women are excluding men not only from conversation, but also sexual relations. This image is unique from later depictions of witches as it does not include the traditional iconography that established the women as witches, such as witches’ tools or the witches’ Sabbath. The only clear signifier of the women’s evil nature is the demon hidden in the shadows to their left. His presence affirms the women’s special relationship with the Devil, one of the major anxiety among men that was well described throughout the witch-hunting manuals and classical texts. As men viewed this print, the women were placed between the men and the demon to create a visual fight for dominance. Who would claim authority over these naked women and place them under their control? In this way, Dürer’s print calls for a response from the male viewers as it recognizes the threat the demon plays to men’s control over their women. It proclaims that men must regain authority over the women in their lives or the Devil will take control. This print is an early example of witchcraft and the identification of these four women as witches is still ambiguous as there is little iconography to draw from, but the print makes it clear that demons and the Devil had a strong influence over women and were an ever-present threat to masculine authority.
In The Witch, Dürer created an foreboding inverted world by drawing from classical and contemporary literature on witchcraft. The print displays an older nude woman with untamed hair riding backwards on a flying goat with putti gathered around beneath her. In the scene, Dürer aimed to encapsulate the disorder and threat to society of unregulated women, going so far as to invert his infamous monogram to emphasize the backward nature of the world he had created. Unlike Dürer’s first print of witches, the woman depicted in this scene is noticeably older and reminded male viewers of the threat of older women to societal norms. Older women embodied the anxieties felt by men as they were often widowed, living alone on the edges of town and estranged from the community and its regulations. Without a male presence to watch over them, they were believed to partake in corrupt practices which also made them easy targets for accusations of witchcraft. It was believed they were particularly prone to witchcraft because their souls were believed to be ‘inflamed with malice or rage’ (Neave, 4). Furthermore, it was understood that the sex drive increased following menopause, yet the women were no longer able to reproduce. This made their sexuality immoral as it could no longer result in a child. In Dürer’s print, the witch’s body is wrinkled and her breasts are sagging as they are unable to serve their purpose of nurturing an infant anymore. Contrasted with the idealized female nude, the witch’s sensuality is not only deviant but grotesque to male viewers. The witch also tightly grasps a staff between her legs and the position of the staff appears as a replacement of the phallus. This image of the woman with a phallic form between her legs agitated fears once again that women no longer required men for sexual relations, but also that women were appropriated the male role in sex through the use of a false phallus. In addition to the replacement of men, the witch is seen tightly grasping the horn of the goat she is riding, which was a well-known symbol of cuckolding. Male viewers were reminded by this iconography that women, under the influence of the Devil, may cuckold them and threaten their authority as husband.
The woman riding the goat is a reference to the Aphrodite Pandemos, a version of the Greek goddess associated with sensual desire that contrasted the heavenly Aphrodite Urania, who symbolized virtuous and spiritual love. Dürer makes clear connections between the witch and the goddess of love to affirm the relationship between witches and lust. Aside from the goat, gathered around beneath the goat are putti or cupids, Venus’ offspring, playfully interacting with each other and the witches’ tools. The goat itself is closely connected with another ancient god, the Roman god Saturn. Saturn was associated with castration, violence, disorder, and melancholy. The offspring of Saturn were understood to embody social disorder and those familiar with Roman myths and classic texts, such as Dürer’s humanist patrons, would recognize the witches as the offspring of Saturn himself. Through the thoughtful creation of this print, Dürer cultivated a system of symbols that sparked the collective imagination of the humanists. They delighted in finding the classical references to the literature they adored and visualizing the sorceresses they read about as Dürer’s riding witch, but Dürer’s images also aided in the growing momentum of witch-hunters throughout German-speaking lands. This witch atop her goat reaffirmed men’s suspicions of widows by confirming they were indeed involved in witchcraft and under the influence of evil to create social disorder and challenge the status quo. Men needed to control these unruly women before they could create the destruction and chaos depicted in the print. Following this print, Dürer’s interest in depicting witchcraft waned as he moved on to other subjects, but his former pupils, Hans Baldung Grien, picked up where he left off in creating the anxiety-inducing images which fascinated academics and fueled the growing unease in society.
Marking the beginning of his independent career, Baldung Grien insured that his first work, Witches’ Sabbath, would not go unnoticed by depicting a wild and anxiety-inducing scene that is chocked full of iconography and symbolism. Baldung’s chiaroscuro woodblock print depicts a gathering of nude witches in the lush forest, surrounded by the tools of their trade and the chaos that they create. The scene draws inspiration from an earlier print by Albrecht Altdorfer, Departure for the Sabbath (1506), which included many of the same motifs such as the central urn, the flying riding goats, and witches with raised arms in the middle of performing spells. Baldung also adopted the familiar setting of the German forest for his own sabbath print. The forest was a place well-known to people in society as a site for the miraculous and the dangerous. It served as the home for lustful wild people and people would disappear into the forest to perform evil tasks.
The dark and untamed land was the antithesis of civilization. The print depicts a central event of practicing witchcraft, the witches’ sabbath. Understood as a crude imitation of the Catholic mass, the witches’ sabbath was for performing spells, mixing potions, and making offerings of humans and animals to Satan in a display of loyalty. The objects spread out around the witches served as an illustrated catalog of “maleficia,” the tools needed for witchcraft, which were described in great detail in the Malleus Maleficarum. These tools included caldrons, forked sticks, and human bones typically from unbaptized children. Fetuses and unbaptized children were a staple ingredient in witches’ stews and potions at the sabbath. In the pot held on the stick by the flying witch, two small bones stick out from the concoction as a possible symbol of a child the witches have already consumed. This aided in supporting the established belief that witches caused children’s deaths and confirmed the fear that they used the children they killed in their demonic ceremonies. The other prominent food on proud display are thick sausages roasting over the fire. Scholars have argued that Baldung’s depiction of witches in the midst of their sabbath was intended to be viewed as humorous, growing out of the popularity of the witches seen in classical satire, but it seems unlikely that viewers would find such chaos and violence as amusing. Baldung, following after Dürer’s example, created a new order of witches that became the central figures of legal and medical debate throughout the 16th century. The witches he created, while based on literature and previous depictions of the witches’ sabbath, opened up the possibility that women could be incredibly dangerous and prosecution was necessary to stop them before they could harm society any further.
The last example from Hans Baldung Grien appears tame in comparison to the previous print, but the highly sexualized image is a curiosity because of its intended audience and the way in which it managed to convey two distinct messages with the use of witches. In New Years Greeting with Three Witches, the bottom right corner of the print reads “DER COR CAPEN EIN GUT JAR (to the cleric a good year).” The print addressed to a cleric, most likely a friend of Baldung while he lived in Freiburg, shows three women, two young and one old. The combination of types of women represents the ambiguity of the witch for she could be simultaneously young and old or ugly and attractive. The new years greeting identifies the witches using the barest minimum of iconography, a significant departure from Baldung’s previous print which utilized every known visual trope about witches. In this print, a cauldron is held up by one of the women as their wild and magical wind-swept hair billows around their contorted nude bodies. Women’s hair was often the target of male distress as it was closely tied with beliefs about the dangers of women’s sexuality. Women could try to excite lust in men using their beautiful hair, luring them towards danger or death.
The seductive quality of women’s hair led to beliefs that women with beautiful loose hair were more likely to be witches. To protect themselves from the persuasive powers believed to be stored within their hair, witches’ heads were shaved before trial. The most important aspect of this print, and perhaps the most puzzling considering the intended viewer, is the sexual interaction between the three women. The focal point of the scene is the genital stimulation of the central figure with the cauldron. The act of female masturbation encapsulated many fears felt throughout society. It represented the danger of female sexual pleasure, the rejection of men and male authority, and the disregard for women’s reproductive duty. The lack of men was a specific iconography for witchcraft as only witches could operate outside of the supervision and authority of men. Masturbation was considered mortally sinful as it was a sexual act that did not lead to procreation, threatening the duty of women to be fruitful and reproduce. A possible explanation for the genital stimulation other than purely for sexual pleasure was the important task of anointing themselves with a special ointment which was thought to give them the ability to fly. The ointment was more effective when applied to the genitalia and was described in witch-hunting manuals to be made of unbaptized children and poisons. Rubbing between her legs, the figure may be preparing herself for flight to the Sabbath with an application of the ointment. The other curious figure in the print is the witch bent over with her head peering between her legs and presenting her backside to the viewer. This peculiar pose was considered reference to a well-known method of worship of the Devil in the late Middle Ages in which the devout kissed the Devil’s exposed backside. It was also believed that if one looked between their legs in this way, they would be able to see the Devil. The witch, in this case, simultaneously embodies both aspects as she presents her backside to the viewer to kiss as well as glares out from between her legs in an attempt to see her master, the Devil. Sending this image to a cleric within this university community may have acted as a reminder of the clergy’s role in the prosecution of witchcraft as they were the major proponents of the witch-hunting manuals. If the print was shared among Baldung’s friends working at the university, the print acted as a cry for reformation. The sexualized witches represented the need for reform in law and verified the need for the academics who studied and implemented the reformations which would lead to the later prosecutions again witches. The witches represented a real threat to masculinity and society through their sexual deviancy and relationship with the Devil. The print, while bawdy and humorous at the surface level, served as an example of what the well-educated elite men needed to reject to maintain control and preserve their communities.
When the witch-hunting texts and these prints gained popularity in German-speaking lands, there was no way anyone could ever have imagined the mass prosecutions and death that would result from later witch-hunts beginning in the middle 16th century. The cultural materials created at the beginning of the century simply provided the kindling for the spark of panic that existed throughout communities to grow. The images by Dürer and Baldung worked in tandem with popular classical literature, contemporary witch-hunting texts, and existing fears to shape stereotypes of witches that agitated male anxieties about women and provided them with the evidence they needed. The prints were a visual manifestation of the perceived threat to society and reinforced the masculine duty to control the women who were considered dangerous. The prints, whether the artists believed in witches or not, were the result of a combination of humanist interests, emerging witch-hunting texts, and societal tensions about women. The combination of these influences provided the visual vocabulary that transformed over the half-century into widespread panic. This panic lead to the death of thousands of women as men answered the call to action to put a stop to witchcraft before it could devolve into the horrors depicted by artists such as Dürer and Baldung.
Hults, Linda C. The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
Neave, Dorinda. “The Witch in Early 16th-Century German Art.” Woman’s Art Journal 9, no. 1 (1988): 3-9.
Roper, Lyndal. The Witch in the Western Imagination. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
Schuyler, Jane. “The “Malleus Maleficarum” and Hans Baldung’s “Witches’ Sabbath”.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 6, no. 3 (1987): 20-26.
Sullivan, Margaret A. “The Witches of Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien.” Renaissance Quarterly 53, no. 2 (2000): 333-401.
Stephens, Walter. “Witches Who Steal Penises: Impotence and Illusion in Malleus Maleficarum.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 28, no. 3 (Fall, 1998): 495-529.
Weigert, Laura. “Autonomy as Deviance: Sixteenth-Century Images of Witches and
Prostitutes,” in Solitary Pleasures: The Historical, Literary, and Artistic Discourses of
Autoerotica, ed. Paula Bennett and Vernon Rosario. London: Routledge,
Zika, Charles. Exorcising Our Demons: Magic, Witchcraft, and Visual Culture in Early Modern Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2003.