A Patriarchal Portrait of a Witch: Warning of Witchcraft in the Female Wiles


A Patriarchal Portrait of a Witch: Warning of Witchcraft in the Female Wiles

Early modern Europe was a period of patriarchy, in which men were in control and women only truly had a say in the household affairs.  Power and regul

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Early modern Europe was a period of patriarchy, in which men were in control and women only truly had a say in the household affairs.  Power and regulation lay in the hands of men, while the care of the children and the making of food and drink lay with the women. By utilizing the 15 th century oil painting Love Magic by the Rhineland Master , this article intends to expose men’s fear in the early modern period of female sexuality, and their subsequent attempt to stifle it by associating women with devil-magic: i.e., witchcraft.

In this 15 th century painting, the primary female character is portrayed as a witch, thus acting as a visual illustration of the way in which female sexuality—whether magical or natural—could be threatening to the patriarchal structures of early modern Europe. This image was very different to the conventional stereotype of witches at the time.

Witch Stereotypes

In the early modern period, particularly in the northern countries, there was a rather specific view of the early modern witch.  More often than not, the interpretation of the witch in the 15 th-17th centuries tended to fall in line with the woodcut images of Hans Baldung Grien, a German painter and printmaker from the late 15 th century (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Hans Baldung Grien. Witches Sabbath, 1510. Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. ( Public Domain )

Court records reveal that witches tended to be considered old, withered, infertile, and poor.  They were knowledgeable about medicinal practices, skilled in herbal remedies and potions, and they were known gluttonous, sexual deviants.  Witches were fearsome women in the early modern period—rarely depicted as men.  They were masters of various maleficent skills and spent their nights dancing with the devils and demons they had bargained their souls with.  Most often, the image of the witch was female because the tasks assigned to women in the early modern period fell in line with the tasks of witches.

Women were commonly skilled at brewing, often taking on a brewing business to supplement household income, making them uniquely talented at creating beverages and drinks.  They were also tasked with caring for the sickly poor, because they were inclined to act as midwives and tend to their own children, thus obtaining medicinal knowledge over time.  Since the poor were unable to pay for a proper doctor, and doctors themselves were few and far between outside of major cities, health concerns generally fell on women.  Since skills were correlated to the age of the woman and the years she had spent practicing midwifery and brewing, it was very common for old women to be associated with witchcraft.

Figure 1. Rhineland Master. Love Magic, 1470s. Museum für bildende Künste, Leipzig.

Figure 1. Rhineland Master. Love Magic, 1470s. Museum für bildende Künste, Leipzig. ( Public Domain )

An Alternative Depiction

Love Magic , however, paints a very different picture of the witch than Grien’s work and the standard beliefs of the period.  Most strikingly this woman is young and beautiful: her skin is pale and smooth, indicating that she spends most of her time indoors rather than working outside.  Her face is soft and thoughtful, and her body is coy in both position and movement.  The sheer wrap that “covers” her private area and the way in which her left arm moves toward her chest are indicators of modesty, though intentionally feeble attempts at it by both woman and artist.  There is no sense of true reserve or shame on the woman’s face or in her pose for her conduct, indicating a lack of remorse for her current spell and her previous ones.  This is important to note because the discussion by women of sex in the early modern period was much more cautious because “…sex had different implications to that of men.  In their testimonies, women’s references to their own sexual experience frequently involve ideas of shame and the model of confession.”  Women were expected to discuss sex less openly than men, if for no other reason than out of fear for otherwise being considered loose.  Love Magic’s witch, however, does not have these same concerns.

A Physical Deception?

It is worth acknowledging—though not necessarily arguing—the possibility that this woman is a disguised witch.  The power of glamor, the ability to physically transform themselves into more beautiful women or even into animals, is a common in legends of witches.  If this is the case in Love Magic , then—again—the Rhineland Master has further broken down the power of the patriarchal system of early modern Europe.  Now, not only are women capable of emotional trickery—such as crying to get their way—they are capable of physical deceit.  In this case, there is the possibility that the witch is not truly as beautiful and youthful as she appears, and that she might be using a transformative spell to lure the man to her.  This is worth noting because it would undoubtedly be a concern on the mind of the male viewer of Love Magic and thus troublesome because of the woman’s obvious success at her bodily deception.

A variety of witch types portrayed in Frans Francken The Younger’s (Belgain), Witches’ Sabbath, 1606, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A variety of witch types portrayed in Frans Francken The Younger’s (Belgain), Witches’ Sabbath , 1606, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. ( Public Domain )

How Does this Image of Women Reflect Patriarchal Society?

It is these intended variations of the early modern witch as done by the Rhineland Master that challenges the patriarchal structures of early modern Europe.  By changing the physical description of the understood witch—whether through actuality or a glamorous spell—the Rhineland Master is adding to the stereotype that women are the true danger of society.  Cold and wet creatures, women are already considered dangerous and unstable. They are often distrusted because of their ability to cry on demand; their tendency to have periodic mood swings; and their constant imaginations.

Breaking the traditional depictions of witches breaks expectations, so the beautiful woman standing erotically unclothed in her own home undoubtedly did not ring of warning to the young man she has seduced.  Her spell has infected his mind and affected his understanding of what is happening, revealing that the patriarchy of early modern Europe can be negatively swayed by the deceit of women.

If the Rhineland Master had chosen to keep the depiction of a witch to a disgusting, old hag, he would have reinforced the power of men in early modern society.  The success of the witch would have been placed only on the spell she cast, and not the allure of the woman herself.  By breaking the stereotypical portrayal of an early modern witch, the Rhineland Master successfully proves that a society of patriarchy can, in fact, be broken by the female sex.  Love Magic intentionally undermines the power of men by revealing—not the man’s inability to reject the woman—but the woman’s ability to use trickery and deceit to alter and affect the judgments of men.  Based on the humors alone, women pose a threat: their heightened emotions and imaginations allow them to manipulate the men in their lives and also be controlled by evil.

A Warning of the Feminine Wiles

The Rhineland Master creates his beautiful, youthful witch to reveal the dangers a manipulative woman can pose to a male dominated society.  The association between women and witchcraft is so strengthened by this portrayal. This visual warning would have spoken both to the learned man of society, as well as to the lower classes, as no knowledge of literacy would have been necessary to read such a message.  In the work of the Rhineland Master, men are the victims of womanly charms, both physical and deceitful in nature.  Unfortunately for the intended audience, the message the Master effectively conveys to his audience is one of failure on the part on the men, and achievement on that of women.

Top image: Rhineland Master. Love Magic, 1470s. Museum für bildende Künste, Leipzig. ( Public Domain )

By Ryan Stone


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