- The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe
In this ambitious book Linda C. Hults sets out to study images of witches with the intention of proving how "witchcraft images participate in the doubly antifeminist, reciprocal relationship of male artistic creativity and feminine evil" (26). To this end, she has chosen artists from a broad range of contexts and cultures of early modern Europe: Dürer, Baldung Grien, Francken, De Gheyn, Rosa, and Goya.
The first two chapters provide historical context and theoretical models. Chapter 1 surveys past and current scholarship on early modern European witchcraft. In chapter 1 Hults elucidates how her interpretation of the images is grounded in gender and feminist theory. In chapter 2, Hults places contemporary ideas of art within the developing discourse of witchcraft, tracing "how witchcraft images fit within the gendered discourse of artistic creativity in the early modern period" (27). The subsequent five chapters present case studies of the various artists, with Dürer and Baldung together. For Hults, the witch was a Muse because "she became an index of the inventive capacity, intellect, and thus the heightened status of the male artist in the early modern period" (16).
Hults is at her best in her iconographic analyses. Her careful, detailed readings of these woodcuts, engravings, and paintings are insightful and new. For instance, Hults contrasts the "intricate, velvet tonalities" of Dürer's engravings with the "irreducible linearity" of Baldung's woodcuts (81). The connection she draws between these images of the grotesque female body and the discourse of witchcraft is convincing and successful. Her claim — that many of these images, intended for small private groups of learned men, functioned like dirty jokes (96) — is entirely in keeping with the genre of demonological treatises like the Malleus, which recycled anticlerical jokes (Walter Stephens, Demon Lovers , 303): "Have you heard the one about the nest of penises?"
Historians of witchcraft would have liked information on contemporary viewers, but unfortunately Hults does not furnish such material. Did the learned men who commissioned, bought, or received these images as gifts not leave some trace of what they thought of them in diaries, journals, or letters? We cannot assume that their thoughts about women and witches always corresponded to hers. How were these images meaningful alongside depictions of the Madonna and Child, idealized wives, and Old Testament heroines? Could some of these images of witches — such as Baldung's The Weather Witches (the dustjacket art and fig. 3.12) — simply present a study in the female nude that was turned into a study of witches and retitled as such to make them more fashionable to potential patrons rather than, as Hults claims, an attempt by Baldung to use witch iconography to play "a game of forced abjection that generates (he hopes) the reconstitution of the patriarchal order and of the male self" (99)?
As a scholar who conducts research and has published on Italian witchcraft, I [End Page 237] found the overviews of witchcraft in each chapter too general. Only a handful of studies about Italy are mentioned in the notes and bibliography. Hults relies too heavily on surveys of European witchcraft in English. There is a vast body of scholarship on Italian witchcraft, much of it in Italian, that would have nuanced her claims. As a result, the evidence, at times, cannot bear the weight of the assumptions. For example, Hults argues that De Gheyn's The Parable of the Devil Sowing Weeds expresses the Dutch's "cautious view of witchcraft" (154). Can a work of art by one artist really represent a whole nation's views of witchcraft for the entire early modern period?
Witchcraft specialists may wish to add to the context of her study, but this book, with copious illustrations and innovative theoretical approach, nonetheless remains an important contribution to the study of witches in early modern European art.