Because I’m not going to make it to Scotland this summer (or Fall, probably) I have been perusing the various sites and reviews devoted to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s current exhibition, Witches and Wicked Bodies, to see if I can find witchcraft images that I haven’t seen before. The depiction of witchcraft from the Renaissance on is a compelling visual and cultural topic: I can’t believe there hasn’t been an exhibition before this. I have a whole portfolio of images that I use in my various courses, and rely heavily on the analysis in Charles Zika’s great book: The Appearance of Witchcraft: Images and Social Meaning in 16th Century Europe (for the best analysis of the really provocative prints of early sixteenth-century artist Hans Baldung Grien) as well as the sources and images available at another ongoing Scottish(digital) exhibition: The Damned Art: Witchcraft and Demonology. Witchcraft has been serious business in Scotland, from the days of King James VI’s Daemonologie (1597) to the present.
Looking through the images from these various sources, I am struck by the rule of three: how very often witches are depicted in a group of three, as in Henry Fuseli’s 1785 iconic image of the Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth on the exhibition poster above. Fuseli’s image is easily explainable: it is based on Shakespeare’s three prophetic sisters which is in turn based on those of Holinshed’s Chronicle, which is in turn based on the traditional threefold warnings of doom. But even before Shakespeare’s time, witches are often found in parties of three, perhaps to depict a closed and empowered circle, the smallest coven or conspiracy, or a demonic inversion of the Holy Trinity. The Scotland show features several witchcraft themes, Macbeth and magic circles (as well as witches in flight and devilish rituals) which highlight the power of three. But then what about good things come in threes or third time’s a charm?
Three Witches depicted in: Ulrich Molitor’s lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (1489) and The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (1619), Ferguson Collection, University of Glasgow; John Runciman, Three Satyrs’ Heads, 18th century, National Galleries of Scotland; Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer, 1775) National Portrait Gallery, London; William Blake, The Triple Hectate, 1795, National Galleries of Scotland; Arthur Rackham’s Three Witches/Gossips, 1911, from The Ingoldsby Legends of Myth & Marvels; the Weird Sisters in last year’s production of Macbeth at the Lyric Threatre in Belfast, Northern Ireland. No Goya—too scary!