Painting

Double, Double Toil and Trouble: Witches in Art and Modern Media

Rachel Witte 31 May 2022 min Read

One of my favorite parts of the Halloween season are the scary and cult classic movies shown on repeat all month long. The fact is, we can actually watch them all year round, not only on Halloween. And one of my favorites is Hocus Pocus. While it may not fall within the realm of “scary”, it is definitely a cult classic that must be watched at least once every year. When the subject of the unreal was suggested by the editor, I went directly to witchcraft in art. How is it used or represented in art? Why are there witches in art? And why do we still find them creepy and unnerving after several centuries? 

What was the draw towards witches throughout history? The mystical nature of witches or supposed witches in history largely focused on the “evil” aspects of their existence; to their connection with dark forces as children of Satan. However, in general, we have not always been interested in the grotesque or creepiness of the theme. Conversely, we have been more focused on the spectacle of accusing witches and condemning them to their deaths.

Witchcraft in Art

The theme of witchcraft has prevailed throughout history and in various cultures. Depicting witches as grotesque or scary appeals to the notion that they are below “normal” beings, that we are able to debase them because of what they are. It is only recently in modern history that we see artists portraying witches as seductive people. I have yet to decide for myself whether that is owed to the further blurring of Pagan and Christian beliefs and practices, or to an overall better understanding of the theme.

1. Francisco Goya

Oddly enough, Francisco Goya has a decently-sized collection of artworks dealing with witches and witchcraft. Below is one plate from a larger collection of overall gruesome or morbid scenes.

Witchcraft in art: Francisco Goya, Plate 12 from Los Caprichos: Out hunting for teeth (A caza de dientes), 1799, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. 
Witchcraft in art: Francisco Goya, Plate 12 from Los Caprichos: Out Hunting for Teeth (A Caza de Dientes), 1799, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

This next piece does not lose its whimsy and odd character, but perhaps it is less dark than the plate above. (Of course, if you exclude the skeleton baby and the spear of children in the background of the painting!)

Witchcraft in art: Francisco Goya, The Sabbath of Witches, 1797-1798, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid, Spain.
Witchcraft in art: Francisco Goya, The Sabbath of Witches, 1797-1798, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid, Spain.

2. Henry Fuseli

Henry Fuseli, the Swiss artist, favored supernatural themes in his works, as shown below.

Witchcraft in art: Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches, 1796, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Witchcraft in art: Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches, 1796, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

3. Hans Baldung Grien

Hans Baldung Grien was a German artist who was infatuated with traditional religious scenes as well as those dealing with the supernatural and erotic.

Witchcraft in art: Hans Baldung, The Witches, 1510, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Witchcraft in art: Hans Baldung Grien, The Witches, 1510, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Here is a colored version of the same artwork.

Witchcraft in art: Hans Baldung, The Witches, 1510, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Witchcraft in art: Hans Baldung Grien, The Witches, 1510. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

4. John Raphael Smith

An English artist, John Raphael Smith at one point became fascinated with imaginative and disturbing subjects. This engraving is based on the work of the aforementioned Henry Fuseli, and is ominous in nature, fitting in with his style.

Witchcraft in art: John Raphael Smith, The Weird Sisters, 1785, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Here is another version, similar in subject and theme, of the witches from Macbeth by 18th century artist John Runciman. This Scottish painter was well-known for his literary and Biblical paintings and drew heavily from the works of William Shakespeare.

Witchcraft in art: John Runciman, The Three Witches, ca. 1767-1768, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, UK.
Witchcraft in art: John Runciman, The Three Witches, ca. 1767-1768, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, UK.

Witchcraft in Modern Day Media

In current-day mainstream media, witches and witchcraft are commonplace. Hocus Pocus, Bewitched, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, Supernatural, American Horror Story, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Salem, Vampire Diaries, The Originals… There appears to be no end in sight for the ever-growing list, and this is just a small selection of television shows. Besides television and movies, the theme of witches and witchcraft has also filled our literature.

 Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Movie still from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Melissa Hart as Sabrina talking to her magical cat Salem, 1997. Paramount Domestic Television/ABC News.

It seems that every corner we turn, we are met with an ode to the history of witches, whether good or bad, and a lot of it comes out of the shadows during October and the festival known as Halloween, or Samhain. In 2018, Netflix released a new Sabrina the Teenage Witch series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Rather than dealing with lighter subjects, Greendale’s young witch is faced with much heavier themes. The Weird Sisters are even portrayed in the show as eerie, yet beautiful students who are acquainted with Sabrina’s coven.

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