Bruegel’s witches land in Bruges exhibition


Witchcraft, superstition and persecution are the themes of an atmospheric art exhibition in Bruges’ Sint-Janshospitaal

Cauldron bubble

Bruges seems to have drawn the short wand when it comes to hosting Bruegel’s Witches. Rather than getting the exhibition for Halloween last year, when it was spooking the citizens of Utrecht in the Netherlands, the show arrives at Sint-Janshospitaal just as spring is on its way. An effort will be made for the traditionally witchy Walpurgis Night, on April 30, but you can almost hear the curses being muttered in the tourist office.

That said, the exhibition does a lot to get you in the mood. The entrance is up a winding stone staircase, which echoes with sepulchral chanting. At the top of the stairs there is a tunnel of fabric, printed with images of a witches’ sabbath, leading into the darkness. Electric candles on the floor show the way, and a Hand of Glory (with lightbulb flames coming from its fingers) flickers on the wall.

Sometimes exhibitions insist on gloom to protect delicate paintings or prints, but here it’s all part of the atmosphere. There are even electric candles you can carry around; more for effect, it turns out, since they’re too weak to help in deciphering the exhibition guidebook.

The show itself is a combination of art and artefacts, often a sign that there isn’t enough art to go around the venue. But the great significance of books, charms and other objects in the history and lore of witchcraft means that the glass cases contain some of the exhibition’s highlights.

There are copies of tracts warning against witches and books such as the Malleus Maleficarum, a notorious guide to hunting them. Then there are tools for practising witchcraft and the associated trades of fortune-telling and conjuring, and objects for warding off evil.

Pursuit of women

The two sides of the struggle are not always easy to distinguish. One of the most sinister objects in the exhibition is a protective whistle made from a dried rat’s foot, its ceramic mouthpiece covered in Latin text and decorated with a death’s head. And what’s with the walking phallus badges worn by medieval pilgrims?

The largest and most dramatic artefact is a wooden pillory in the shape of a cloak, carved with figures intended to protect against evil. Women being punished for prostitution or adultery in the late 17th century would be made to sit inside, restrained by a metal hoop around their necks.

All that’s missing is the pointed hat, which doesn’t appear in art for another 200 years

The way the pursuit of witches was used to justify the persecution of women who did not fit in, either because of their looks or their behaviour, is a further theme of the exhibition. In particular it explores the cases of Mayken Luucx and Maycken Karrebrouck, two women from Bruges burned as witches in 1634.

The bland portraits of city elders, hanging nearby, take on a new dimension when you read that they were actively involved in torturing, trying and executing witches.

But where does Bruegel come into all this? The exhibition argues that while images of witches are common enough throughout the middle ages, it is Pieter Bruegel the Elder who brought all their now familiar attributes together for the first time. He did this in designing two prints – “St James and the Magician” and “St James the Fall of the Magician” – published in Antwerp by Hieronymus Cock in 1565.

Each image is full of demonic action, but to one side of “St James and the Magician” there’s an open fireplace with a cauldron, a cat by the hearth and a woman riding a broomstick about to disappear up the chimney. All that’s missing is the pointed hat, which doesn’t appear in art for another 200 years.

Evil and entertainment

Paintings and illustrations of witches before and after Bruegel are produced to show the extent to which the Flemish master set the tone for the rest of the 16th and 17th centuries. Even as the intent shifts from dire warnings of evil to entertainment, the elements that Bruegel brought together persist.

This can be seen in a series of 17th-century paintings of witches’ kitchens by Frans Francken II and David Teniers II. Here evil is replaced by the mild titillation of young women disrobing in order to have a magic salve applied to their bodies, giving them the power of flight. It’s all very jolly, until you realise that Franken produced one of his paintings in Antwerp in 1631, barely a year after the city burned its first and only witch.

The exhibition ends with a quick run through the subsequent cultural history of witches, from the Wizard of Oz and accounts of the Salem witch trials to Suske en Wiske and Disney (but not Harry Potter, perhaps due to the powerful magic of copyright). The final room gives kids the chance to dress up like witches and ride a broomstick flight simulator.

Until 26 June, Sint-Janshospitaal, Mariastraat 38, Bruges

Photo: David Rijckaert III, “Mad Meg or Sweeping Hell Clean”, after 1650

© Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna