Durer’s ‘The Four Witches’


I came across this engraving called ‘The Four Witches’ by Albrecht Durer in the exhibition titled, ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies,’ which is currently on show in Edinburgh. I thought it would be interesting to consider this print as a form of propaganda through drawing.

In the past it was very common for artists who were talented in drawing and print technique to be commissioned to make propaganda art to further the agenda of a political or religious body. Durer was a highly skilled draughtsman with a very high reputation for his masterly prints, which are an ideal medium for propaganda as they can be reproduced and widely distributed. Considering that this print was made in 1497 during a period when witch trials and witch-hunts were becoming very common in Europe, I suspect that Durer may have been commissioned to make this drawing to reinforce the actions being taken against witches.

At first glance it might seem to be an image of four women at a communal bath, or as some scholars have suggested, it could be a reference ‘The Three Graces’ of classical mythology. However with closer inspection we see that there is a scull on the ground and a creature representing the devil in the lower corner, which could be read as the gateway to hell. I read it as deeply sinister image about how witches will lure other women towards hell, or an image portraying the deceptive nature of women and how they might be able to conceal their connections with demons.

Drawings such as this one demonstrated to me how drawing and print media was used in the past to manipulate people and reinforce beliefs that were being promoted by the church.


One thought on “Durer’s ‘The Four Witches’

  1. I hope this exhibition gave lots of ideas about drawing–it is a great place to think through some of the persuasive function sof drawing, as you say. Durer’s print was made at a moment when lots of ‘witch’ images were produced, notoriously by Hans Baldung Grien, Durer’s friend with his witches sabbath and the ‘Bewitched groom’–and image that also uses drastic perspective foreshortening to cinematic effect! Deanna Petherbridge’s recent book on drawing (the vast tome of 2010) has a very interesting section on ‘Phallic breats, disgusting hags, and monstrous sex’, pp. 403-5, that shows how the German avant-garde artists l;ikle Dix revived such techniques and subject matter in the twentieth century.

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