Someone at the British Museum did a great job in publicizing this exhibition last year (2014). Or maybe it was just that everyone who knew me thought fit to mention it. Either way, it was on my radar for quite some time before I dragged myself off to see it, despite my deep envy at discovering the exhibition when it was initially shown at the National Galleries of Scotland.
My mother had already seen it, but agreed to go again with me. To be honest, I’m not sure I would want to go to a witchcraft exhibition with me. If I’d gone alone, I would have muttered loudly under my breath, as it was, I looked slightly less insane muttering to my mother. And mutter I did, because it was a fascinating exhibition, well worth seeing and one from which everyone could learn something new.
I need no excuse to visit the British Museum, in fact, it is one of my favourite places in the world. I downright love it. I’ve loved it since I came on special trips to London, as a young girl. I fell in love with it again as an undergrad, when I obtained a magical reader’s card for the old British Library, that circular hallowed space where the real scholars worked – in silence. Those were the days.
I was also intrigued by my mother’s comment from her first visit that she couldn’t really see what some of these images had to do with witches. The curator was Professor Deanna Petherbridge, a distinguished artist and curator, with an interest in representations of the body. The study of witchcraft lends itself to a variety of disciplines and interpretations and, indeed, my own work blends trials with literature, embracing and offering a broader picture of representations of the witch, the Devil and the sabbat.
However, since there has been relatively little work done on the iconography of witchcraft with the wonderful Professor Charles Zika leading the way and others such as Lorenzo Lorenzi also making interesting contributions, this exhibition was eagerly awaited by many in the field and beyond. The images encompassed a wide range of interpretations of witches and wicked bodies, although the emphasis was undoubtedly on the female. Envy, seduction and discord were all used as proxies for witchcraft, when depicted as female and most often, but not always, ugly. The images were largely from Western Europe, with themes including St Anthony and St James, envy, beauty (and lack thereof), magic, temptation, fertility (and lack thereof) and gender. Such a broad range of themes underlines the fact that the concepts of witchcraft and the witch impinged on many different areas of intellectual and everyday life.
The predictable favourites were there: Dürer, Baldung Grien, Goya and Blake. However, I was impressed by the vast range in time and scope of the artists included. It was great to see the inclusion of work by Paula Rego and Cindy Sherman. It was a fantastic exhibition, marred only by a few mistakes that could have been rectified by any witchcraft historian having a quick peek around before the opening. Whilst the timeline was helpful for the general reader, I was disappointed to find both Kramer and Sprenger credited as the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, when for over a decade historians have reckoned it to have been the work of Kramer alone, who incorporated Sprenger’s name to lend authority to the work. Jan Ziarnko, the Polish artist, whose illustration for Pierre de Lancre’s Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et demon was published in Paris in 1612, was named as Jean Ziarnko, which possibly only another Pole would have picked up on. The accompanying catalogue is exceedingly good and very reasonably priced at £14.99. A review of that is forthcoming on this site.
I was also surprised that within reviews of the exhibition and subsequent events, there seemed to be an absence of historians of witchcraft. A pity, as this might have circumvented repetition of the usual and often erroneous narratives.