As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife and I were in London last weekend, so after going to the V&A on Saturday we met up with friend Abi to go to the “Witches and wicked bodies” exhibit at the British Museum. This is another little one-roomer, and it’s mostly prints, posters, handbills, and books — that is, what-you-might-call-art rather than the artefacts you’d normally find in the BM. It covers the period from about 1450 to about 1900, with a few classical bits and pieces to show that witches aren’t just a late-medieval and later concept.
The main thrust is to show the evolving depiction of the witch, presumably as it goes hand in hand with evolving conceptions of the witch. And that is interesting — I’ll come back to it in a second. But there’s also just a lot of interesting art in this exhibit. I don’t know much about art, but it’s creepy and evocative.
A lot of this art is German, which is interesting because Germany in the 17th century is Witch Panic Central. This Daniel Hopfer piece is earlier than the majority of witch freakouts, but it’s definitely from an era in which people believed in witches. But witches are both serious business and a suitable object for comedy devil-beating images.
During the age of the witch trials, things get a little weird. Like, this broadside, “Witchcraft in Trier,” is from around 1600 — the Trier witch trials ended in about 1593. And it is a fascinating piece; clearly the product of genuine fear and horror and fascination. I can sit here and smile at it and go “man, that’s fucked up.” But it’s also a legacy of a really scary event that lead to hundreds of deaths.
Or check out Matthaus Merian I’s “Witchcraft,” from 1626:
But I think that my favourite part of the whole exhibit was this Temptation of Saint Anthony by Jacques Callot (1635). I don’t think it is easy to see how Saint Anthony would be tempted by a giant goddamn dragon spewing other dragons out of its mouth or an armoured goblin shooting some kind of monstrous lion-cannon thing, but what do I know? Perhaps it’s a tribulation rather than a temptation.
Then you get into a later period and people start viewing witches in a more symbolic light.
And a Gillray caricature to class the joint up:
By 1890, witchcraft is all symbolic or romantic, presumably because no one really believes in it — but interestingly to me, this is what people think of when they think of witchcraft, not all that stuff with sticking people with needles and Vinegar Tom and angry disputes over who moved the branch an old lady left over a puddle. So the historical fact of the witch persecutions is married to a completely ahistorical understanding of what people meant when they said “witch.”
Anyone who tells you that the Halloween image of a witch is “historically inaccurate” should be punched in the gizzard or at least gently corrected, because honestly the horrible old hag with the broomstick and a black dress is way closer to the actual Thirty-Years’-War conception of a witch than Symbolic Serpent Moon Lady. As we have seen.
Lest I be misunderstood as taking a cheap shot at modern-day witches (who are usually much more clued in about this than people who just happen to know some witches), let me point out that Treadwell’s Books has an upcoming class on making witch hats.
So anyway: for me, the most interesting things were the prints and other popular materials from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the King James Daemonologie and so on. But the whole thing is good — once again, it’s the BM, so the depth and range of their collection is excellent. It’s pretty tightly focused: 4-500 years, pretty much Europe only, but that allows you to see the same themes appearing and reappearing, both as expressions of widespread popular belief and as evidence of artists copying and inspiring each other. It’s one room, so it’s pretty manageable in time terms. And it’s free. Check it out if you’re in the area or visiting the BM for another reason; I’m not sure it’s quite enough to merit a visit all by itself. But then that’s what I did. It’s on until January.
Oh, and there’s a pretty cool display of Albrecht Durer’s Triumphal Arch downstairs, so you could check that out as well. That’s only on until mid-November.