August 20, 2010

Witches: Depiction through Art History

One of the most often depicted subjects in art, witches & witchcraft hold a spell over history. Since their roots in ancient paganism, witches have gone through a very interesting journey. They have been popularized, hated, romanticized, and even depicted as horrible and repulsive beings.
This is their evolution through art history.

Medieval Art
We start here because this is when the meaning of the word "witch" was born. Before the middle ages paganism ruled, thus making the word "witch" irrelevant. During this time (5th-15th C.) the depiction of witches in art was mostly illustrative. While we do encounter certain depictions of "witch hunts", most of which appear around the end of the Medieval ages with the rise of witch persecutions , we mostly see appearances in the storytelling realm, both biblical and mythological, such as the case of Arthurian Legends.
During the Late Middle Ages, with the rise the Renaissance (late 14th C), we also see an increasing interest in the occult. Perfect examples of this are the alleged creation of Tarot cards, and fascination with mythical creatures, such as dragons & unicorns. However, while the symbolism of fantastical beings were accepted in this Christian era, witches were not.

The Burning Times
Ironically enough, with the beginning of the Modern Age, in the 16th C, came the Witch trials in Early Modern Europe. Anti-witch laws has been around as early a Ancient Greece, however, it wasn't until now that the hysteria that malevolent satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christianity spread through Europe and its colonies. Most of the Art from this time, which lasted until the end of the 17th C, is propaganda, accounts, and images of how a "witch" really looks like.

Grotesque figures were emphasized. Witches were depicted engaging in sexual acts, having meetings with the Devil and performing spells.

Post 18th Century: A look back at witches
By this time witch hunts and trials had completely vanished from society; there were still laws against witchcraft, but there weren't any hangings and horrendous deaths. The 18th century was the time of enlightenment and reason. Starting from this period artwork begun depicting witches in the historical events that had taken place in the past two centuries. This was part of the Neoclassicism movement in the 18th & 19th Century.

Romanticism & Victorianism: Witches make a come back
A complex artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the mid-18th century, Romanticism gained strength because of the contrast of the Industrial Revolution and the era of enlightenment. Among one of the many characteristics of this movement is the involvement of the supernatural. This is when witches starting changing; having been previously depicted in horrendous ways, witches were now taking a more feminine figure. While the imagery of the "ugly witch" was still present, witches were now being portrayed by good looking, modelesque women, as if their beauty and grace captivated people into a world of evil. Art from this time often, but not always, was based on literature, mythology and story telling. Some say that Romanticism died in the mid-19th century. Whether it did not not, its influence was obvious during the Victorian Era and early 20th century. The Arts and Crafts movement, the aesthetic movement, Anglo-Japanese style, and Art Nouveau style have their beginnings in the late Victorian era.

It was, also during the Victorian era, that the Golden Age of illustration came to be (1880 - World War I). In a time when wood engraving was the predominant method by which an illustrator's work was reproduced, many Artists and illustrators working at the turn of the century took full advantage of the developments in new printing processes. It is during that time that Fairy tales took a more mainstream role; an example of this is the publication of "Children's and Household Tales" in 1812, also known as the Grimm's Fairy tales". It was this genre of literature, followed by Drama (Shakespeare), from where most witches were depicted.

The Modern Witch.
Today's witch enjoys from a variety of positive attributes, in fact, much of today's entertainment is based around the concept of witchcraft. While the "Ugly witch" imagery remains a major archetype (that perhaps will never go away), we leave behind the grotesque images of the 16th century. At the same time we don't focus on the overly sexualized figures of the romantic era. Today's witch is surprisingly human, taking inspiration from different sources, gothic, fantasy,etc. One thing is certain, they sure have come a long way.

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