Around Halloween, thoughts turn to jack-o-lanterns, costumes, trick-or-treating, and lighthearted frights. Originally, the holiday marked crossings and connections. It was a transition between the autumnal harvest and the desolate winter months to come, and it marked a proximity to the supernatural. Spirits, goblins, and ghosts drew closer to this world for a short while. Many of Halloween’s ambassadors, who persist in our visual culture today, possess histories dating back millennia. Black cats, devils, and witches have long occupied an important place in Western iconography. The witch’s history, especially, is fraught with issues of religion, metaphysics, power, and gender, casting some women as heretical and evil. In modern history, enlightened artists like Francisco de Goya depicted witches in order to satirize common superstition. Goya had learned to be afraid of the supernatural in childhood, he explained, but as an adult he had “no fears of witches, goblins, ghosts . . . nor any sort of body except human. . . .” During the Renaissance, however, artistic intentions were not always so clear. Interpreting the witches depicted by artists like Albrecht Dürer, Hans Beltung, Salvator Rosa, and Marcantonio Raimondi—artists living in the transition between Middle Ages and Enlightenment—presents challenges.
Raimondi’s Lo Stregozzo (The Witches Procession) offers a useful case study in this history. The engraving is visually arresting, and its meaning and creation are mysterious. Scholars are divided regarding the identity of the printmaker—Marcantonio Raimondi or his student Agostino Veneziano—as well as the designer of the overall composition. Raimondi would have had commercial reasons for making the print himself. The subjects of witchcraft and the supernatural reflect a savvy business decision, since they would have appealed to both pious and humanist audiences alike.
The print’s iconography is cryptic. A retinue of bizarre creatures and ephebes [an ancient Greek term for young men undergoing military training] accompanies a witch, seated atop a huge dragon-like skeleton. Together, they traverse a marshy landscape. The witch holds a cauldron and grasps at a baby. Common belief held that witches murdered infants for making certain potions. Such superstitions were widespread among the public, but the Church’s views of witchcraft were complex. According to the canon Episcopi from 906 CE, the transformations attributed to witches and their “wild rides” to Black Masses in the dead of the night were products of imagination or mental illness rather than actual realities. Only the Creator could alter material things, and the nature of God informed future skepticisms as well. In 1475, theologian Johannes Nider protested that a loving God would never allow witches to murder unbaptized babies, damning them eternally. By contrast, in 1487 Dominican clergymen Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger published the Malleus Maleficarum, challenging the canon Episcopi and seeking to prove that witches’ interaction—and sexual congress—with demons was theological fact. Similarly in 1523, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola’s Strix, sive de ludificatione daemonum recorded incidents of witches’ transformations, infanticide, and fraternization with demons.
In this climate, Raimondi’s print surely represented reality for the superstitious and some of the pious. Its sources, however, also reflect humanists’ interests in mysteries and antiquities. The work’s processional model was likely pagan, resembling a Dionysian retinue from Roman sarcophagi. Additionally, the flower at bottom left is asphodel, which Homer placed in underworld’s meadows. Such allusions suggest the association of Raimondi’s witch with ancient models like Hecate (goddess of witchcraft, linked to Diana), Medea (Jason’s wife and murderer of her children), Canidia (Horace’s grotesque potion-making witch), and Apuleius’s Meroe (who changes lovers into animals). These gendered classical portrayals of magic-using women were engrained in Renaissance culture (where a folk-healer might be accused of witchcraft by a slighted neighbor), even if most did not know the ancient sources of these archetypes.
Raimondi likely knew about classical themes such as the procession directly from antique sources and indirectly from the work of artists such as Andrea Mantegna. Notably, Mantegna’s depiction of Invidia in his Battle of the Sea Gods (c. 1480s) was the probable source for one of Dürer’s witches, which in turn informed Raimondi. Mantegna demonstrated rich invention and possessed a wealthy, learned, and humanist clientele who enjoyed puzzling through the master’s inventions. In Raimondi’s day, these buyers would have potentially understood witchcraft as superstition, fantasy, dream imagery, or as a mere metaphor for evil. For such persons, the follies in Lo Stregozzo would have been legible. Given the superstitious belief that witches used babies in producing flying potions, a problem emerges in this work. Despite the witch’s apparent use of infants and potions, her skeletal-ride is not so much flying as it is being lifted off the ground and pulled by her escort. This locomotion points to reliance upon natural laws rather than supernatural powers. Ultimately, Lo Stregozzo’s ambivalences allow for many readings. The work was a cipher and a potentially shrewd business decision. Today, we have largely reformed our view of witchcraft, yet we still harbor other unsubstantiated beliefs. Halloween’s witches are cartoonish rather than supernatural. They are also historical reminders to examine social tendencies that unjustly judge classes of people, forcing them to wear masks born of our own irrational fears.
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Prints and Drawings, and European Paintings at the Blanton
For further reading:
Albricci, Gioconda. “‘Lo Stregozzo’ Di Agostino Veneziano.” Arte veneta 36, no. 1982 (1982): 55-61.
Boorsch, Suzanne, Jane Martineau, Keither Christiansen, Ekserdjiian, Charles Hope, and Martin Landau. Andrea Mantegna. London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1992.
Bury, Michael. The Print in Italy, 1550-1620. Exh. cat., London: British Museum, 2001.
Davis, Bruce. Mannerist Prints: International Style in the Sixteenth Century. Exh. cat., Los Angeles, Calif.: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.
Emison, Patricia. “Truth and Bizzarria in an Engraving of Lo Stregozzo.” The Art Bulletin 81, no. 4 (1999): 623-36.
Hults, Linda. The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005
Institoris, Heinrich, Jakob Sprenger, and Christopher S. Mackay. Malleus Maleficarum. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Landau, David, and Peter W. Parshall. The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550. Exh. cat., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Rabinowitz, Jacob. The Rotting Goddess : The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity’s Demonization of Fertility Religion. Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1998.
Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972.
Shoemaker, Innis H., and Elizabeth Brown. The Engravings of Marcantonio Raimondi. Exh. cat., Lawrence, Chapel Hill: Spencer Museum of Art, Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, 1981.
Stephens, Walter. Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Symmons, Sarah. Goya: A Life in Letters. London: Pimlico, 2004.
Tietze-Conrat, E. “Der Stregozzo.” Die graphischen Künste N.F.1. (1936): 57-59.