Visual Arts: Paintings, Postcards, and Woodcuts - Creative Arts

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Visual Arts: Paintings, Postcards, and Woodcuts
Creative Arts

Witches and witchcraft have inspired artists and served as their muse but, conversely, artists have also exerted tremendous influence over popular perceptions of witches and witchcraft. Artists have continually shaped and reshaped how the general public views and understands witches and witchcraft. This was especially true when there was little competition from any other media.

Images of powerful women have always held people spellbound. Among Earth’s oldest surviving works of creative “art” are Paleolithic and Neolithic carvings of powerful females (see the Introduction). One may trace changing perceptions of witches (and of women in general) through centuries of art. There are countless artistic depictions of witches or themes related to witchcraft, too many to ever include in one book; however certain eras, schools of art and individual artists are especially identified with the topic:

Image Medieval woodcuts

Image The Northern Renaissance

Image The Spanish painter Francisco Goya

Image Victorian-era painters including the Pre-Raphaelites

Image Halloween postcards from the turn of the twentieth century

As with masterpieces of literature or film, some may consider it unfair to reduce some of the world’s finest artistic representations to discussions of witchcraft, however that is what ties these very disparate styles, eras and perceptions together. It is also not usual for fine art and popular culture to be considered side by side; however in terms of historical impact, popular forms like woodcuts or postcards have exerted extraordinary influence over how witchcraft is portrayed and perceived. The anonymous masters of propaganda who created those medieval woodcuts also helped create the image of the witch as monstrous consort of Satan. And the early twentieth-century fine artists, often equally anonymous, who strove to earn a living by painting postcards, conversely helped redeem witches, popularizing the notion of the beautiful, playful or sweet witch.

Popular perceptions of witches were shaped by the paintings and engravings of acclaimed masters like Goya, Dürer or Hans Baldung Grien, and also by popular penny-dreadfuls, broadsides, and turn-of-the-twentieth-century postcards. Whether they are equally worthy as art is subject to debate; they are equal in terms of their impact on witchcraft.

Medieval Woodcuts, Engravings, and the Northern Renaissance

Although these genres are usually considered separately, when the main focus is on depictions of witchcraft, they are almost impossible to separate as the masters of the Northern Renaissance often used the same production techniques as those used by the anonymous illustrators of penny-dreadfuls and broadsides. The significant difference between the genres is the level of artistic skill of the renowned masters and the almost absolute anonymity of the medieval craftsmen.

The invention of the printing press not only promoted notions of general literacy; another by-product was the then-revolutionary concept of “popular art.” Up until the fifteenth century European art was almost completely religious in nature. Religious topics were the only topics with very, very, very few exceptions. The concept of art as popular entertainment or mass secular information had yet to be born.

“Woodcut” and “engraving” refer to methods of creating art. These methods were incorporated by the masters of what is now considered the Northern Renaissance in addition to conventional painting, however the term “medieval woodcuts” is also often used as a blanket term to refer to illustrations made using that method in the popular media of the day.

Woodcut is a printing method in which images are carved onto the surface of a flat block of wood. The printing parts remain level with the surface; the non-printing parts are removed usually with a chisel. Ink is rolled over the surface using a roller; the ink is only applied to the flat surfaces. Paper is then placed face-down on the inked woodblock and pressure applied to its back. Ink is transferred to the paper and a mirror-image of woodblock is created. Multiple colors can be printed although the simplest woodcuts are monochromatic.

Woodcuts and the new printing process made it possible for inexpensive illustrations to be created for mass consumption. Literacy was still rare but anyone could view and comprehend pictures. And as the name of one type of publication, the penny-dreadful, indicates, soon almost anyone could afford them.

Medieval woodcuts as a genre tend toward the sensational and macabre: witches are a favorite theme. There are countless of images of witches in that genre: witches flying to sabbats or applying ointments, witches casting spells or curses, witches cavorting with Satan or witches just being generally evil and disgusting. These images were incredibly influential: many who previously had no idea what a witch looked like were convinced they did once they had seen these images.

If you didn’t fear witches before you saw these broadsides and penny-dreadfuls, you likely would afterwards. Witches were typically given grotesque features: warts, hooked noses, many are deeply wrinkled and look ancient. During an era when life expectancy was low and when death during childbirth was common, women of advanced age were popularly considered unnatural. Merely to be a very old woman was sometimes considered among the sure telltale signs of witchcraft or diabolical affiliations.

Witches are not only identified by their pointy hats and broomsticks. In addition, certain motifs are fairly unique to depictions of witches:

Image Witches are commonly depicted reading. This may not seem unusual today, however up until the eighteenth century artists rarely depicted women in the act of reading with two significant exceptions: women who are clearly studying devotional material and witches who study books of magic.

Image Witches are commonly depicted naked. During very conservative eras, the only women who frequently appeared naked were witches, which just went to prove what kind of women they were, even if they had been forcibly unclothed. (During public executions, condemned witches frequently died unclothed, as did Joan of Arc; it was considered the ultimate punishment and humiliation.)

It is surmised that Albrecht Dürer and other witch-hunt era artists painted witches specifically because they desired to paint the female nude, and the only women whom it was considered acceptable to paint naked were witches.

There is a powerfully sadistic, pornographic quality to much popular witch-hunt era imagery; there are tremendous quantities of naked witch imagery, in many of them witches are engaged in various sexual acts with Satan, demons, familiars, each other, men, you name it. Other images depict the accused undergoing torture and physical examination. Often the unclothed woman (if she has clothes, they may be ripped to shreds) is chained to a board, chair or pole while a pack of men examine or torture her. Witch-hunt era images are direct precursors of similar imagery found centuries later in many pulp or pornographic magazines.

A tremendous quantity of medieval woodcuts survive; however, virtually all the illustrators are anonymous.

The Northern Renaissance

Renaissance means “rebirth” and usually refers to the flowering of artistry and intellect in Italy beginning in the fourteenth century and spreading throughout Northern Europe during the sixteenth. It is considered the transitional period between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age.

The Northern Renaissance occurred concurrently with some of the most virulent witch-hunts. Whatever their personal opinions (and many of these works are considered ambiguous), images of witches and their sabbats became popular in high art as well as low, with images of witches’ sabbats created in woodcuts, engravings, and paintings by masters of the Northern Renaissance. Although the artistry may be finer and the techniques more sophisticated, many of the themes, images, and topics are no different than those of the anonymous medieval carvers. Witch-hunts were current events for these artists; they were aware of popular depictions of witchcraft and drew their inspiration from the same sources.

The Northern Renaissance artist most associated with themes of witchcraft is Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1484—1545), who is considered responsible for introducing erotic and supernatural themes into German art. Witches were among his favorite themes.

Grien received part of his artistic training in Albrecht Dürer’s workshop as designer of graphic illustrations (1505—1507) and is considered among Dürer’s most gifted students. He eventually became a member of his workshop. Grien painted religious pieces as well as practitioners of the magical arts. His best-known work is the High Altar of the Cathedral at Freiburg in Germany.

Grien was a member of the Strasbourg Town Council and official painter to the Episcopate. He lived in Strasbourg during a time when the city was preoccupied with witch-hunting. The Pope had appointed the Bishop of Strasbourg to supervise enforcement of witchcraft laws in the area and to discover hidden witches. Grien became a wealthy property owner who took an active role in Strasbourg civic life during this time.

His witchcraft-themed works include:

Image The Witches’ Sabbath (1510); considered among his masterpieces, it featured a new technique known as chiaroscuro or tonal woodcut that resulted in a print resembling something between a woodcut and a painting

Image Scare of Witchcraft (1510)

Image The Witches (1510)

Image Witch with a Monster (1515); the monster, a dragon, anally penetrates the young, naked blonde witch with his incredibly long tongue.

Image Two Weather Witches (1523)

Image Departing for the Sabbath (date unknown)

Image Three Witches (date unknown)

Image The Bewitched Groom also known as Sleeping Groom and the Sorceress (1544)

Other artists and their works associated with witchcraft themes include:

Image Niklaus Manuel Deutsch (1484—1530): Witch Porting the Skull of Manuel; Old Witch; Female Flautist

Image Albrecht Dürer (1471—1528): The Four Sorcerers; The Witch; Witch Riding a Ram Backwards

Image David Teniers the Younger (1610—1690): Witches Preparing for a Sabbat

Image Hans Weiditz II (also sometimes spelled Wyditz) (c. 1495-c. 1536). This Flemish artist is considered a master of the Northern Renaissance. He specialized in woodcuts and is an important exception to the rule regarding the anonymity of this genre. His woodcuts include: Witch Turned Werewolf Attacking Travelers; Witches Celebrating; The Alchemist; Witch Fighting a Devil; Witch Brewing Potion; and Devil Seducing Witch


When it comes to witchcraft (and perhaps in other ways as well) the artist who was born Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (March 30, 1746-April 16, 1828) transcends genres. Goya created a prodigious output of work; a high percentage involved witchcraft themes including a series of paintings known as The Witchcraft Paintings.

Goya’s mother came from the lowest rung of Aragonese nobility. His father, a master gilder, traced his family’s roots to Basque ancestry. The Basque region was identified with witchcraft and had earlier been the site of one of the few major Spanish witch-hunts (see WITCHCRAZE!: Spain). The Basque word for sabbat, Aquelarre, is the title often given one of Goya’s most famous paintings, called in English The Witches’ Sabbat.

His depiction of witchcraft is ambiguous and there is much speculation as to his true beliefs. His witches are grotesque but powerful. They are consistently painted in conjunction with the devil in the form of a human-sized goat. However, Goya also created images of individual witches punished by the Inquisition and these may be interpreted as being quite sympathetic.

Goya had his own troubles with the Inquisition himself, although they did not include charges of witchcraft. Goya was perhaps the first master of social or political art and so often interpreters seek metaphors in his works devoted to witchcraft. However, scenes of Spanish witchcraft (brujeria) were very popular in late eighteenth-century Spain, if only as a joke about ancestral superstitions, and were a favored theme not only in visual art but also in literature: many plays about witchcraft and diabolism (assumed to be intrinsically related) were produced in the Spanish theater during Goya’s time. Antonio de Zamora, the Spanish playwright and author of The Stone Guest, is believed to have helped inspire Goya’s Witchcraft Paintings, for instance. Few of these witchcraft-related works are familiar to English speakers and thus Goya’s work is often interpreted out of context.

Although Goya painted witches throughout his life, they are prominently featured in three specific series:


This series of numbered satirical prints are known as the Caprices, Capriccios or Caprichos, and consist of etchings with acquatint. They are named and numbered. The word “caprice” derives from the unpredictable jumping and hopping of a young goat. Approximately one-quarter of the 80 final plates in the Caprices represent witches or witchcraft. They were published in 1799 but attracted the attention of the Inquisition. Goya withdrew them from public sale and offered them to the Spanish King. They appear in the royal inventory of 1803.

Examples of the nature of witchcraft-related caprices:

All Will Fall: Capricho 19 possesses a hallucinatory quality. It depicts winged malevolent spirits including a traditional siren (a bird-woman, not a mermaid) high in a tree overlooking three women, presumably witches. The old grotesque woman/witch looks up while two younger, attractive, buxom women amuse themselves by anally penetrating a captured flying demon (or bird) who suffers in their hands.

There Was No Remedy: Capricho 24 depicts a female victim of the Inquisition riding on a donkey. She is often interpreted as a witch although her “crime” is unclear. She’s barebreasted, wearing the long peaked, striped hat of humiliation. (Stripes were once representative of criminality as in some modern prison garb.) The woman shines white and luminous while the crowd leers and jeers at her from the darkness.

Other caprices with witchcraft themes include Capricho 60: Trials; Capricho 61: Volaverunt; Capricho 67: Wait Until You’ve Been Anointed; Capricho 68: Pretty Teacher (a young naked witch clings to a wizened elderly cone on a flying broomstick).

ImageWitchcraft Paintings

Goya painted six oil paintings devoted to sorcery and witchcraft during 1797 and 1798. The series consists of six individual paintings, thematically related but not forming a coherent narrative. Two are now lost. In June 1798, the so-called Witchcraft Paintings were sold to his patron the Duke of Osuna who, together with his wife, is believed to have commissioned them. The surviving paintings comprise:

Aquelarre or The Witches’ Sabbath

The Bewitched

The Flying Witches

The Spell or The Incantation

ImageThe Black Paintings

In 1819, Goya bought a country home known as “The House of the Deaf Man.” (Quinta del Sordo). Ironically, although Goya was deaf (he became permanently deaf in 1792), the house was not named in his honor; the previous owner had been a deaf farmer. Between 1820 and 1823, Goya created 14 paintings directly on the plaster walls of the house. (There is also a school of thought that suggests these paintings were actually made by his son.) They are now known as the “Black Paintings” both because of their literal color and the darkness of their mood. In several of the works, Goya once again returned to the theme of witchcraft.

In 1860, long after Goya’s death, the paintings were removed from the walls, restored and transferred onto canvas. In 1881, the then owner of the house gave the paintings to the Spanish State, which passed them on to Madrid’s Prado Museum where they remain today. The house itself was demolished to make way for a railway siding, which now bears Goya’s name. Among the Black Paintings devoted to themes related to witchcraft are The Goat and Las Parcas (The Fates).

Nineteenth-century Paintings Including the Pre-Raphaelites

The nineteenth century was characterized by a reassessment of art and women’s societal roles in general, and of witchcraft and witches in particular. Among other artistic movements, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by a group of seven English painters in 1848 as an extension of the Romantic movement dedicated to re-defining “art.” They, together with other artists, were fascinated by mythology, mysticism, and women’s mysteries, which became extraordinarily popular themes and remain so today.

Once again witches and sorceresses became a common artistic motif, although the witches now being produced were like nothing ever seen before. Previously, one could safely say that depictions of witches were generally grotesque, at best ambiguous. Images of witches created during this era were frequently at worst ambiguous; in general, they are beautiful, powerful, and mysterious even when they are threatening.

These witchcraft paintings remain extremely popular; although many are unfamiliar with the artists’ names, the images themselves are often incredibly familiar, appearing all over the Internet on sources devoted to Wicca and witchcraft. They appear on the covers of multitudes of books devoted to witchcraft as well as other unrelated topics. It can be difficult at first glance to distinguish between the several books currently available all featuring John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle on the cover, for example.

A popular artistic theme during this era was the mysterious power of women. (This was a period where women were first beginning to demand political rights and social and economic equality.) These artistic depictions may not have been intended favorably although modern eyes tend to view them in a positive manner. The concept many of these paintings intended to convey was that of the femme fatale, the belle dame sans merci. Although beautiful, seductive, and alluring, this woman is ultimately deadly: a Salome or a Jezebel, a Circe or a Medea, or even just some generic sorceress or witch.

Witches were still dangerous but they were beautifully so rather than grotesque. Whether this style of art reeks of misogyny or celebrates these magical, powerful women is subject to interpretation and strong cases have been made for both sides of that particular argument.

Among the artists most devoted to painting witches and sorceresses was John William Waterhouse (April 6, 1849-February 10,1917). Waterhouse enjoyed painting the theme of the femme fatale. Among his many works featuring themes relating to witchcraft are:

Image The Household Gods (1880)

Image Consulting the Oracle (1882)

Image The Magic Circle (1886)

Image Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses (1891)

Image Circe Invidiosa (1892)

Image The Crystal Ball (1902)

Image Jason and Medea (1907)

Image Circe (1911), also known as The Sorceress

Image The Charmer (1911)

Image The Love Philtre (1914)

Image Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (c. 1916)

There are too many paintings related to witchcraft in this genre to ever count. However, some other significant paintings from this era include:

Image A Bacchante Arthur Hacker (1913)

Image Circe John Collier (date unknown)

Image Circe Arthur Hacker (1893)

Image Circe Lucien Levy-Dhurmer (1895 and 1897)

Image In the Venusberg (Tannhauser) John Collier (1901)

Image The Laboratory Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1849)

Image Lilith John Collier (1887)

Image The Love Potion Evelyn de Morgan (1903)

Image The Magic Crystal Sir Frank Dicksee (1894)

Image Medea Anthony Frederick Sandys (1878)

Image Priestess of Delphi John Collier (1891)

Image The Prophetess Libuse Vitezlav Karel Masek (1893)

Image The Sorceress Lucien Levy-Dhurmer (1897)

Image The Sorceress Henry Meynell Rheam (1898)

Image The Vision of Faust Luis Ricardo Falero (1878)

Image Witch Gustav Klimt (1898)

Image The Witches’ Sabbath Luis Ricardo Falero (1880)

Halloween Postcards

The very first official government-sanctioned postal card was unveiled in Austria on October 1, 1869. Postcards were an immediate hit: it is estimated that nine million of them were sold in their first year of existence and sales continued to increase exponentially.

Originally postcards were intended as a very simple, less-expensive method of postal communication. The first postcards were uniform and had minimal imagery. In 1878, standard dimensions were assigned at the World Congress of the Universal Postal Union. In the 1890s, governments began relinquishing control of this profitable product, granting publishing licenses to private industry.

Simultaneously, refinement of a color-printing technique known as chromolithography occurred. Postcards could easily and inexpensively have individual images on one side, leaving room for written messages and address information on the other.

The first chromolithograph centers were in Germany, where most early art-postcards were produced. These cards are characterized by their long-lasting vibrant colors—colors created by toxic materials that are now no longer in use. The artwork on turn-of-the-century postcards, thus, is often more vivid and exciting than on more recent examples and as such are highly valued by modern collectors.

Postcards emerged in all different varieties. From approximately 1900 until 1930 sending Halloween postcards was as popular as sending Christmas cards remains today, and perhaps even more so. Hundreds of postcards were produced featuring Halloween imagery, especially witches. Many were also devoted to divination techniques. Today they are highly prized collectibles, and the finest ones in mint condition fetch extremely high prices. For many, this financial value is the most significant aspect of antique postal cards. However, from a witchcraft perspective, these postcards created a magical image of witchcraft perhaps never seen before.

“Fine artist” unfortunately too often translates to “starving artist”; however, postcard-production created job opportunities for many talented artists. Many labored anonymously but some postcards are signed and now are avidly collected. Because the goal was to sell postcards, images might be attractively spooky or even a little shivery but they were rarely truly grotesque. The artists had fun creating the images: many are very playful and thus express the side of witchcraft that is fun and joyful as well as powerful.

These postcards rely on mythic, folkloric, and modern imagery. Popular turn-of-the-century Halloween postcard imagery include vegetable people and other harvest motifs including Corn Mothers masquerading as witches, fortune-telling and other divination techniques, Halloween pranks, and (especially) witches and the fertility-based motifs most associated with them: owls, bats, cats, cauldrons, spiders, broomsticks, and so forth.

Relatively few witches are grotesque; even the old crones are powerful, evocative, and drawn as worthy of respect. Witches wear green, black, and red—especially red: red shoes, ribbons, bows, dresses, and stockings. There are child witches and beautiful witches (even very occasionally male witches). In general (and there are exceptions), they may be characterized as fun and powerful and welcoming. Often witches are shown interacting with conventional people, usually assisting young women with romantic divination or observing Halloween festivities.

Some of the most popular publishers of these postcards include American Postcard Company, Gibson, International Art Publishing Company, Lubrie & Elkins, Tuck, Valentine & Sons, Whitney, John Winsch, and Wolf Brothers.

Some of the most popular artists responsible for classic Halloween postcards include Francis Brundage, Ellen Clapsaddle, Jason Freixas, H.B. Griggs, and Samuel Schmucker.

Witches also appear on Easter postcards from Sweden and Finland. They are characteristic of Swedish Easter witch tradition and are usually depicted with their coffeepots as well as their brooms and cats.