Art History: Renaissance Witches

As promised, I want to write about the art I love. Northern Renaissance art was the first era of art history I learned about as a college student. It's really what made me fall in love with the subject. I signed up for the class because I ignored the "Northern" part and thought I would be learning the basics of the Italian Renaissance. So wrong I was, and thank god. Northern (referring to pretty much everywhere in Europe but Italy) Renaissance art is so much weirder and I love it so much. 

My sophomore year of college, I took on a quarter-long photography project where I explored the archetypes of women in Renaissance art. There are basically two categories: those modeled after the Virgin and those modeled after Eve. Obviously, those after the Virgin are wholesome, pure, exist to serve their husbands (or even better, become nuns and serve only Christ). Contrarily, those after Eve (who performed the original sin) are deceptive, sinful, trick men into lusting after them. Realizing this binary actually gave me a huge insight to the roots of misogyny as a whole and became a huge part of learning about feminism for me. My photography project focused on giving Renaissance women agency. My subjects were taken straight from actual artwork from the period and celebrated for being just who they wanted to be: devoted worshippers, witches, mother, sinful temptresses. There was no heirarchy--just women being who they wanted to be. 

I have found a lot of empowering ladies in Renaissance art. Male Renaissance artists portrayed the "sinful women"  as evil because they tempted men into sinning. The general public believed that women were inherently evil and men were basically good and so if a man performed a lustful sin, it could be blamed on the woman's powers of sexual persuasion. Sound familiar? That's right! Just like how Eve made Adam take a bite of the Forbidden Fruit! It's all women's fault all the time.  And so, naturally, I became a lot more interested in the imagery and stories of the temptresses. There are some hilarious woodcuts of women riding on men like horses and tricking them into cages, thus signifying their evil reign over men who give into their lusty ways. But my favorites are the witches. 
All of these pieces are woodcuts by the famous Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer. Since they were woodcuts, they were sort of the first mass production of art to be made. These images were passed around Northern Europe and warned against the sinful women. Witches are really just nude women. They can be shown doing some pretty crazy things but, like in the piece above called Four Witches, they are just women. A nude women was shocking the Renaissance people, of course. This was really before women were being seen through the ever-terrible male gaze like you see in art after this time. Men were still terrified of even images of women tricking them into sinning and then being sent to Hell because this is what the church was preaching. So their nudity would have been seen as only disgusting.
 People in the Renaissance were trying to elevate themselves from their natural, carnal state to be closer to God. So then it follows that they don't favor nudity. But I think this link goes further in saying that they thought of women as animals, as part of the nature they feared. Witches are usually shown in natural surroundings, close to animals, twisting themselves in impolite ways.  The church was  trying to form an ordered, god-fearing world, and what women stood for just wouldn't fit into it. I, as a nature-loving, wild woman love this idea, but to the Renaissance people this was not cool.  It should be noted, of course, that most women weren't out flying backwards on goats. They probably weren't even trying to tempt men into sinning, although I bet some bad bitches were, just to spite them. For the most part, the witch archetype is the embodiment of the male fear of their own sins. They just want to blame women for it.
Witches were usually nude, suggesting their relationship to the 
original temptress, Eve, who was also nude until she felt shame about her body. And now you see kids, where so much of our society's misogyny comes from! Body-shaming, slut-shaming, women-shaming. Isn't it fun to learn about art?!
I received all of this knowledge over the few days we took in class to discuss witches and then started connecting the dots. Witches were just women in charge of themselves that men still to this day fear. They are the strong sexy ladies I look up to.  And they are fucking rad.

1 comment :

  1. it really does go back a very, very, very long time doesn't it