The Witches of Durer and Hans Baldung Grien [*]

Article excerpt

This study seeks to demonstrate that the timing, subject, and audience for the art of Durer and Hans Baldung Grien all argue against the view that the witches in their prints and drawings were a reaction to actual witch-hunts, trials, or malevolent treatises such as the Malleus maleficiarum. The witch craze did not gain momentum until late in the sixteenth century while the witches of Durer and Hans Baldung Grien belong so an earlier era. They are more plausible as a response to humanist interest in the poetry and satire of the classical world and are better understood as poetic constructions created to serve artistic goals and satisfy a humanist audience.

When a reasoned and quantitative study of the witchhunts in northern Europe is illustrated with Baldung's drawing of naked witches "playing leapfrog," [1] the juxtaposition suggests that his art can serve as an insightful source for historians studying the witchcraft epidemic. Art historical studies that account for Durer's introduction of the witch in terms of the witchcraze assume a similar relation between actual events and these artistic creations and emphasize demonological texts, such as the misanthropic Malleus maleficarum, [2] that were important to the rabid witchhunters.

Timing, subject, and the audience for the art of Durer and Baldung all argue against the introduction of the witch in art as a reaction to witchhunts, trials for witchcraft or didactic treatises, and the purpose in this study is to suggest that this new and fantastic subject is better understood as a response to humanist interest in the literature of the ancient world. Durer's introduction of the young female witch in the Four Witches (fig. 1) of 1497 and the old and ugly witch in Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat (fig. 2) from around 1500, [3] precede by more than a generation the widespread persecution of witches and sorcerers. [4] Hans Baldung Grien's Bewitched Groom (fig. 3), the last work to be considered in this study, was probably created a year before his death in 1545, and it is only in the latter part of the sixteenth century and during the seventeenth century that witchhunting became widespread and virulent. The work of Durer and Baldung belong to an earlier era, they testify to a different sensibi lity and were produced by artists who could not have foreseen the terrible times to come. Their innovative images of the female witch make a significant contribution to the history of art. They are less useful as a guide to widely-held beliefs and their value for the historian studying the outbreak of the witchcraze in the years after 1560 is limited. Although one author has termed Durer's innovations "realistic pictures of witches" [5] they are more plausible as poetic contructions motivated by artistic goals and a fascination with the underside of the ancient world rather than an interest in witch manuals or a compelling concern with witchcraft as a punishable offense.


As many historians have observed European witch-hunting follows a somewhat surprising course. "Instead of slowly gathering strength and leading into the large panics of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the number of trials leveled off during the first half of the sixteenth century and in certain areas actually declined." [6] This hiatus was even noted by contemporaries. Writing in 1516 Martin Luther observed that witches and sorcerers were "not so commonly heard of" anymore. [7] As there was "a lull in the production and publication of works of demonology," as well as "curiously little persecution in the first half of the sixteenth century," Briggs maintains that the "time-lag before really intensive persecution began is far too great to be disregarded" (1996b, 58). Although the Malleus maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), the virulent diatribe written by the Dominican monks Jacob Sprenger and Jacob Kramer, was published at Cologne in 1486 there is no evidence that the Malleus "generated any gr eater persecutions for witchcraft and magic than had already occurred by the end of the fifteenth century" according to Peters, and it "made no discernible impact on the prosecution of magicians and witches for nearly half a century. …