Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A votive painting to the witchcraft cult?

A rather pleasing witchcraft image, from the Prado’s online collection: ‘Anonymous’ and ‘17th century’, ‘oil on board’ is all they have to say about it.

As you see, we have a variant, unique as far as I know, on the type of composition that puts an elaborate garland of flowers round a devotional image. Somebody like Jan Brueghel would do the flowers, and in the centre, the virgin and child. The figures might be work (sometimes) of a different hand. Rubens worked with Brueghel on this type of decorative/devotional art.

By the model of divided labour, ‘anonymous’ here could well have been an anonymous two. The painting in the middle, a witch at her cauldron, might be by Daniel Teniers: it certainly collects witchcraft motifs from Teniers paintings. Elements from the left and right side of this 'witches' kitchen' scene have been moved outdoors:

So we have the hag with her hair blown forwards, at a cauldron mounted on a tripod over a fire. She stirs the cauldron, while she consults the book of spells in her other hand, earnest as a cook tackling a difficult recipe. At her feet, a skull, ointment pot, and perhaps,  her athame. Music is provided by a zoomorphic attendant wearing  a peculiar hat, who is playing a nose flute, another zoomorph stands and holds a dim taper, while a crouching small demon blows the fire. Other weird faces gaze from the gloom at the scene, toad-like, bat-like, fishy or reptilian. The moon, banded by clouds, is high in the night sky.

The charm and novelty lies in the surrounding cartouche and swags of foliage. A carved lugubrious face of a dog stares from the top. Mushrooms are tied in bunches with coarse string. They seem to be ordinary boletes, rather than any poisonous type of fungus. The foliage is yew (at the top), ivy (of course), wild hops, acorns and a cherry oak gall. Spiky plants are accumulated: briars and thistles.
Notes of subdued colour are provided by a single bluebell, a buttercup, a clover head, a sow-thistle and a larkspur. The artist has not gone for melodramatic flora: it isn’t deadly nightshade, henbane, hemlock, monkshood, but just a set of ordinary enough plants. Seasons have not been observed, for we have a bluebell and ripening blackberries.

The insect life is also mundane, consisting of large and small flies on the upper volutes, balanced by a grasshopper and a wasp on the shelf or plinth below, like miniature armorial bearers. A meadow brown butterfly perches on one thistle head, a wasp or bee on another, then there is a caterpillar on a mushroom, with a shiny beetle adjacent to it. No scorpions, no great big hairy spiders, no devil’s coach men.

Who commissioned or bought this painting? It was obviously created as an object of curiosity. In itself, a fantastic world of impossible beings is surrounded by a thick border of unremarkable things: the type of plants you might ignore or tread upon, annoying little creatures you’d swat away. As a parody of the floral-devotional image, it has a sly mischief to it, prompting  a double-take from the onlooker, who might have taken it for one of those paintings that make a tribute of flowers to a divine figure that had got darkened by smoke or discoloured varnish. Instead of Mary with a verge of vibrant flowers, a composition that pushes towards us with colour and a reminder of faith, this image recedes away past mundane things into a haunted night. A familiar form of cult object is wittily - or daringly - turned into an object apparently venerating another cult.

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