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Witch-Hunting and Women in the Art of the Renaissance

The artistic images of women depicted as witches were varied and constitute unusual 'pieces of history' by preserving a visual record of the intellectual origins of the witchcraze, as Dale Hoak discusses here.

Witches by Hans Baldung Grien, 1510The European witchcraze stands as a clear example of the dynamic power of a cultural myth, the myth than an earthly alliance of Satan’s minions (most of them female) had conspired to destroy Christendom. The fantasy usually fed upon fear; myth became reality when the terrible life-denying sorcery of the stereotyped witch could be made to explain unpredictable or catastrophic misfortune. For example, witchcraft might explain shipwreck, sexual impotency, or an outbreak of the plague. In each case, belief in witches assumed the efficacy of an occult system of malevolent, supernatural powers.

An important aspect of this system was the belief that the stars fatefully influenced human life and history. Medieval writers, following Arabic texts, assigned characteristic traits to certain types of people over whom the planets were supposed to “preside”. The presumed influence of the planet Saturn is of special interest here, for under Saturn sign’s were born those of a typically “melancholy” visage or constitution. The crafts of the “melancholic” included those of the conjurer and magician, and since all harmful magic belonged to Saturn too, the black arts of witchcraft and sorcery were assigned to the planet’s spell.  

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