During my freshman year of college, I took a class called Wise Lady or Witchy Woman: A History of Witches that looked at everything from witch hunts in the Early Modern Period in Europe (about 1480–1700) to the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 to paganism today.
Now, more than two years later, I am no longer quite the encyclopedia I used to be on this topic. However, I was still super excited to apply this knowledge to Dürer’s work dealing with gender and anxiety when I visited The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer at the Clark.
The Malleus Maleficarum was a famous treatise on witches published by Heinrich Kramer, an Inquisitor of the Catholic Church, and Jacob Sprenger in 1486. The main purpose of the Malleus was to discredit those who expressed skepticism about the reality of witchcraft. Kramer and Spregner pointed out that women—who they claimed were weaker in faith, more carnal than men, and more susceptible to demonic temptations—were more often witches than men; the Malleus describes procedures to discover and convict witches.
Dürer was working squarely in the midst of the religious turmoil of the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of the witch hunts. With The Four Witches, 1947, Dürer depicts four nude, exuberant women huddled conspiratorially in a small room. Scattered at their feet are bones and a skull, which are forms of vanitas, symbols for death and the passing of time. The most telling part about this work is the demon engulfed in flames in the lower right corner. This could be seen as a gateway to hell.
The Temptation of the Idler, 1498, depicts a woman reaching out to a man who is fast asleep. A demon (mostly obscured by a pillar) points toward the man, but the woman (who has the long, wild hair believed to be characteristic of witches) is the main figure in the print. There is something slightly playful about this image. A small cupid appears to be trying to step onto a pair of stilts. While the cupid is a symbol for the precarious nature of love, it is also kind of cute and provides a very different feel than the demon poking at the lazy, sleeping man.
In that same year, Dürer produced the alarming work Hercules at the Crossroads (The Effects of Jealousy), which illustrates the passionate, fiery, and even violent nature of women, which was believed to make them more vulnerable to demonic temptations. And finally, I came to Adam and Eve. It seemed very peculiar that this was the latest of all Dürer’s displayed in the exhibition, but nonetheless it depicts the root of all these beliefs about women—their weakness compared to men and their susceptibility to temptations.
All in all, The Strange World of Albrecht Dürer was a very exciting exhibit that allowed me to revisit my knowledge of the witch hunts in Europe and see it through Dürer’s imaginative eyes.
Albrecht Dürer, The Four Witches (Four Naked Women), 1497. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
The Temptation of the Idler (The Dream of the Doctor), c. 1498. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA
Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504. © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA