Witches and Wicked Bodies: Professor Charles Zika on the Witch of Endor and much else

At an informal seminar held in the Dean Gallery (also known as Modern Two, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) this evening, about twenty-five of us – a mix of university staff and Ph.D. students from various fields, mainly history and history of art, but also anthropology – gathered to hear a fascinating seminar given by Professor Charles Zika of Melbourne University. It was part of a series of events organised to coincide with the exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies, open until 3 November.

Witches and Wicked Bodies

I’m certainly no specialist on witchcraft but the visit of such an eminent specialist in this important field of early modern European history (touching on many aspects of social, cultural, and church history, all of which do interest me) was too good an opportunity to miss.

Although primarily a historian, Zika said he often calls himself a “visual historian”, because of the prime role played by images in early modern Europe, an era where literacy was far from universal, and therefore the visual was a key channel for messages of all kinds. Like words, he said, images too have multiple meanings and the challenge for us is to try and decipher them, even though we no longer have the same frames of reference.

His talk focused on two themes, primarily on his current research on the Witch of Endor, and secondly on the reception of these images and, more broadly, the changing nature of the depiction of witchcraft between the period up to around 1590 and then from around the 1620s onwards.

The Witch of Endor (read Samuel I 28: 3-14) is the subject of a forthcoming book by Zika and this evening he focused in particular on Andrew Lawrence’s etching (included in this exhibition; c. 1730-1754, engraving, 47.1 x 29.8 cm: see British Museum here) of Salvator Rosa’s painting of the same subject in the Louvre (1668, oil on canvas, 275 x 191 cm; Lawrence’s etching reverses the composition).


A couple of fascinating points came up: Salvator Rosa’s painting was exhibited in the Vatican at the enthronement of Pope Clement X (1670-76) and Rosa’s was the only work by a living artist.  Why was it chosen? There was no real answer this evening, but I’m sure Zika will answer the question in his forthcoming book.  However, Lawrence’s copy raises other equally interesting questions: Lawrence was a Huguenot (he was buried in France as a heretic) and he dedicated his etching to Dr Richard Mead (1673-1754, no less than the royal physician to George II and a prominent literary patron and philanthropist). A question that came up in the second half of the seminar was the extent to which artists “believed” in witchcraft: as a Huguenot, was Lawrence merely documenting a fashionable trend (cf. Handel’s opera Saul (1739) contains a dramatic scene involving the witch/pythoness/medium)? Or was there more to his interest?

Zika also focused on changes in the nature of the witchcraft and magic portrayed between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, essentially from the “home-spun magic and ‘weather’ witches” – involving cauldrons, pots and potions – of the pre-1580s to the erudite, invocatory and initiatory rites of seventeenth-century magic (magic circles, wands, books, etc.).  To discuss this we moved into another of the exhibition spaces where Zika focused on Jacob de Gheyn II’s work, Preparations for a Witches’ Sabbath (1610; also British Museum, here). What was interesting about this work was that Zika suggested (following Claudia Swan’s ground-breaking research in Art, Science, and Witchcraft in Early Modern Holland. Jacque de Gheyn II (1565-1629), CUP 2005) that De Gheyn had produced it as an engraving to increase its circulation – again prompting the question, why and why then? The changing attitudes to witchcraft by the first decade of the seventeenth century (the scepticism of the Spanish inquisitors in 1610 marked a turning point in Spain) is part of the answer, but also a morbid/comic fascination in the subject – which explains the inclusion of black humour in many of the works. Zika also mentioned the wealthy, educated society of Leiden in which De Gheyn worked, which provided a lucrative market. Seeing the work on the gallery wall here is probably misleading since it was unlikely to have been displayed so prominently by contemporary seventeenth-century owners.

De Gheyn

Incidentally, another gem of the evening was the fact that images of women on broomsticks first appeared in depictions of the French tradition of the Danse macabre. From there they were then incorporated by Breughel into his works.  However, “flying” is not really the point (Zika says he knows of only five or so images of actual flight), and instead “riding” (whether on a goat or broom – or horse as seen below) has other quite distinct allusions.


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