Bruegel’s Witches, Bruges, Belgium

Bringing together more than 40 paintings of witchcraft by great Dutch and Flemish masters like Pieter Bruegel and David Teniers the Younger, the Witches of Bruegel exhibition focusses on the way witches were portrayed in the art of the Low Countries between 1450 and 1700. Rupert Parker reports.

Entrance Bruegel Exhibition

Entrance Bruegel Exhibition

Saint John's Hospital

Saint John's Hospital

St James at the Sorcerer's Den (c) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (2)

St James at the Sorcerer's Den (c) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

St James at the Sorcerer's Den (c) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

St James at the Sorcerer's Den (c) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Bruegel Winter Landscape (c) Antwerpen, Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Bruegel Winter Landscape (c) Antwerpen, Museum Mayer van den Bergh

Witch's Sabbath David Teniers (c) Akademie der bildenden Künste Gemäldegalerie Wenen

Witch's Sabbath David Teniers (c) Akademie der bildenden Künste Gemäldegalerie Wenen

The Cure of Folly (c) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The Cure of Folly (c) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Hogarth

Hogarth

Dressing Up

Dressing Up

Images of witches are familiar to us all – an ugly old woman, with a pointed hat who flies on a broomstick, coming down the chimney to boil her magic brew in a large cauldron, accompanied by her black cat. Surprisingly, these stereotypical images of witches were created by artists from the Low Countries, led by Pieter Bruegel in the 16th century. Two prints of his from 1565, on display here, depict “St James at the Sorcerer’s Den” and “St James Unmasking and Vanquishing Witchcraft and Sorcery”. He was the first to combine the witch with a fireplace and also put the witches’ cauldron on the hearth. Bruegel’s Witches starts with two prints from a hundred years earlier, showing witches flying on broomsticks, but Bruegel added cauldrons and fireplaces, popularising the images that now circulate the world.

The first witch trials took place around 1430 and these early waves of persecution in the Low Countries led workshops in Bruges to produce colourful depictions of witches, often in the corners of illustrated manuscripts. The fifteenth century was a difficult time. The beginning of the Reformation, the Eighty Years’ War and the Little Ice Age, between 1560 and 1630 created huge uncertainty. Harvests failed, food became scarce and people began to think the end was nigh. They saw the work of the devil in everything and began to search for people who were in league with him.

The focus was on women and warnings were issued against their cunning, lecherous wiles and people began to believe these “Angry Hags” were setting out to ensnare them. This was a real witch hunt so persecution increased, thousands were sentenced to death and they became the subject of prints and paintings. These images created the archetypal witches stereotypes and the exhibition traces their history – from sheer terror to entertainment, from wicked hag to fairy tale character.

More than 150 Dutch and Flemish images of witches have been preserved and a selection of fragile panels, manuscripts, prints and drawings have been brought to Bruges to tell the story of Bruegel’s Witches. Beside precious archive documents and manuscripts, the exhibition boasts detailed Witches’ Kitchen and Sabbath scenes painted by Frans Franken and David Teniers the Younger, a print by Albrecht Durer as well as those by Bruegel. Interestingly the witches’ wide brimmed pointed hat comes much later in a print by William Hogarth from 1762.

The upper floor of the 12th century Saint John’s Hospital makes an excellent venue for the exhibition. It’s imaginatively laid out and been kept suitably dark to match its subject. Unfortunately that makes it quite difficult to see some of the detail in the smaller works, although you are given an electric candle to carry around with you. Another slight gripe is that the information is only in Flemish and you need pick up a free booklet at the entrance to get the English version. Of course witches and wizards still fascinate us, and the success of Harry Potter is abundant proof of that. Bruegel is also another star draw and, if you want to see more, it’s well worth visiting the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, if you have time.

Bruegel’s Witches runs at Sint-Janshospitaal (Saint John’s Hospital) in Bruges until 26 June 2016.

Visit Bruges has information about the city.

Visit Flanders has information about the region.

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