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Witches and Wicked Bodies - British Museum

The Siren Vase, Pottery: red - figured stamnos. The ship of Odysseus passing the Sirens. C. 480BC - 470BC. Attributed to The Siren Painter. Greece © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Witches and Wicked Bodies is on display at the British Museum (Room 90) until January 11, 2015.

The power of the witch has always gripped the artistic imagination. This is the first exhibition at the British Museum to present a survey of the subject in this rich and innovative exploration of the representation of the witch and malevolent female figures in the graphic arts.

Spanning from the 1400s through to the end of the Victorian age, Witches and Wicked Bodies delves into the origins of the traditional image of the witch and how this developed as artists fed off public attitudes and current events.

Prints and drawings are shown alongside additional objects that illustrate that the imagery of sorcery and magic extends back to antiquity. Some examples of Greek vases and oil flasks with paintings of sirens, harpies and the famous classical sorceresses, Circe and Medea, are included to emphasise this link.

Efforts to understand and interpret seemingly malevolent deeds – as well apportion blame for them and elicit confessions through hideous acts of torture – have had a place in society since classical antiquity and Biblical times. Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery.

The magus, or wise practitioner of ‘natural magic’ or occult ‘sciences’, has traditionally been male, but the majority of those accused and punished for witchcraft, especially since the Reformation, have been women. They are shown as monstrous hags with devil-worshipping followers. They represent an inversion of a well-ordered society and the natural world.

While historical broadsides document the long and cruel history of witch persecution in Europe, advances in print technology created a burst of disturbing imagery and literature from about 1500. Witch trials intensified during periods of social unrest and religious conflicts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Protestants and Catholics alike were preoccupied with religious heresy.

Striking single-sheet prints were first made by the Renaissance printmakers Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) and Hans Baldung Grien (c.1484 – 1545) and rapidly became a niche market for collectors.

The Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien is a colour woodcut print from 1510 that depicts four nude female figures sitting on the ground with a cauldron. The cauldron is emitting big plumes of smoke. There are traces of a potion with frogs round the figures, the ground is littered with bones and pitchforks and to the right of the image a cat is sitting with its back turned. In the night sky, there are two more witches, one barely visible, the other riding a goat and carrying a pitchfork with another cauldron and animal bones.

The figure of a witch riding backwards on a goat in Baldung’s work is said to have been inspired by Dürer’s engraving of the very same name. Made in about 1500, A witch riding backwards on a goat depicts how witchcraft was thought to reverse the natural order of things, so the hair of the witch streams out in one direction, while the goat and the trail of drapery indicate the opposite direction.

Witches were also shown as bewitching seductresses intent on ensnaring their male victims, seen in the wonderful etching by Giovanni Battista Castiglione of Circe, who turned Odysseus’ companions into beasts. By contrast, Francisco de Goya (1746-1848) turned the subject of witches into an art form all of its own, whereby grotesque women conducting hideous activities on animals and children were represented in strikingly beautiful aquatint etchings. Goya used them as a way of satirising divisive social, political and religious issues of his day.

During the eighteenth century, Henry Fuseli’s (1741 – 1825) Weird Sisters from Macbeth influenced generations of theatre-goers, and illustrations of Goethe’s Faust were popularised by Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863). By the end of the 19th century, hideous old hags with distended breasts and snakes for hair were mostly replaced by sexualised and mysteriously exotic sirens, seen in the exhibition in the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882) and Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916).

The exhibition at the British Museum has been co-curated by the artist and writer, Deanna Petherbridge, and adapted from her book Witches and Wicked Bodies which was first published in 2013 to accompany a display at the National Galleries in Edinburgh. Works from the British Museum collections are supported by loans from the V&A, Ashmolean, Tate Britain and the British Library.

The display shows a dramatic range of imagery that is seldom viewed except by historians or collectors, and it draws attention to the longevity of the iconography associated with witchcraft as a predominantly female manifestation, depicted either as vicious perpetrators, or forlorn victims of Church and State. The power of such images continue to intrigue and fascinate us today.

Admission: Free.

Opening hours: Saturday to Thursday, 10am to 5.30pm; Fridays, 10am to 8.30pm.


Evil hags and mothers: women and witchcraft in Germany on Friday, October 3 from 6.30pm to 7.30pm in the BP Lecture Theatre. Tickets: £5, Members/concessions £3.

Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History, University of Oxford, talks about the witchcraft trials of 16th- and 17th-century Germany and asks why witches were so often older women. Many accusations began in the period of six weeks after a baby was born, a period when the mother could not leave the house and was believed to be under the power of the Devil. If a baby failed to thrive, then the new mother might blame the lying-in maid, frequently an older woman. Fears about women’s bodies, and envy and jealousy between women form part of the background of the figure of the witch.

The Weird Sisters with RIFT theatre company on Friday, October 10 from 6.30pm to 8pm in Room 90. Free but booking is essential.

BM/PM takes place every second Friday of the month. Relax at the bar with friends and catch performances that take a fresh look at the Museum’s collection. Spend an evening in the exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies with a drink, and join theatre company RIFT for an evening of tricks, tales and supernatural talismans. Following their sell-out overnight run of Shakespeare’s Macbeth over the summer, RIFT explore Shakespeare’s most interpretable and intriguing characters – the weird sisters.

Witches and Wicked Bodies on Friday, October 31 from 1.15pm to 2pm in Room 90. Free, just drop in.

A gallery talk by Exhibition Curator Deanna Petherbridge.

Image: The Siren Vase, Pottery: red-figured stamnos. The ship of Odysseus passing the Sirens. C. 480BC – 470BC. Attributed to The Siren Painter. Greece. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG