De Heksen van Bruegel (Bruegel’s Witches),
Sint-Janshospitaal (St John’s Hospital), Bruges,
Until June 26.


Between 1560 and 1630, Europe experienced the worst of a Little Ice Age characterised by long, cold winters and cool, wet summers. Rivers froze, harvests failed and people starved. They also sought someone to blame, hence the cruel weather coincided with the most intensive period of witch hunts in history.

Pieter Bruegel the elder, who lived from 1525 to 1569, and also his son Pieter Bruegel the younger (1564/5-1636), who copied many of his father’s works, are famous for their winter landscapes that depicted the severity of the weather.

What is less well-known is that Bruegel, the elder, is also credited with leading the way as Flemish and Dutch artists developed what is now the popular image of a witch, flying on a broomstick with her ragged hair streaming in the wind.

All that was missing was the conical hat, added for what is thought to be the first time by William Hogarth in a 1762 print entitled Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism.

Around a century earlier, Bruegel the elder’s 1565 prints St James with the Wizard and St James and the Fall of the Wizard provide all the other props that have fed the popular imagination as a witch on a broomstick flies above a bubbling cauldron and her cat sits ready to pounce.

She would have needed all her magical powers to escape the popular anger of those who held her responsible for the Little Ice Age.

Bruegel’s depictions of extreme weather on display in the upper gallery of the Sint-Janshospitaal include Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap as starving people were driven to catch birds.

The Massacre of the Innocents also takes on added resonance in a Bethlehem that resembles a typical Flemish village deep in snow.

The Bruegels, elder and younger, are undoubtedly the aesthetically satisfying centre of the exhibition, though another treat is Cornelis Jacobsz van Culemborch’s Ice Shove (1565) , which shows the massive heaps of snow and ice that buried a woman’s house in the port of Delft.

Whereas the Bruegels’ paintings teem with a mass of unruly humanity and detail, Ice Shove examines a single huge impact.

The rest of the exhibition is mostly dedicated to demonstrating how prevalent the witchcraft theme became as the artistic community expressed with horror and sometimes the derisive humour it deserved the pursuit of human scapegoats.

A standout is Albrecht Durer’s The Witch (c. 1500), who flies not on a broomstick but back to front on a goat, symbolic of the devil. The spindle in her hand, a typically female instrument, takes on phallic significance given the association between witches and lechery and could at a casual glance be mistaken for a broomstick.

Also notable is Flemish artist David Tennier’s Witches’ Scene (c.1635) as a witch, with palpable glee, stirs a cauldron with her right hand, while in her left hand she holds a book of spells. A monster crouching by the cauldron holds her broomstick, while a bat flies below and a full moon lights up the sky.

The outsiders hunted down by society as witches weren’t necessarily women, but women were the most likely to be burnt at the stake. Prostitutes were particularly at risk as witches were believed to be in sexual communion with the devil, so society made virtually no distinction between witches, prostitutes and adulterous women.

For the ritual humiliation of any women of ill repute, the Dutch town of Den Bosch designed an extremely heavy wooden Cloak of Infamy, decorated with toads, snakes, rats and lizards and fastened with a choking metal collar that women were made to wear as they were driven through the town on a waste disposal cart.

Such horrific treatment of fellow human beings is only one step removed from some of the fascinatingly ghoulish practices of the 800 years of the Sint-Janshospitaal’s tradition of caring for the body and soul.

Certainly in the early years, there was so little hope of any bodily cure, the focus was on the soul, sometimes through aesthetic depictions of the horrors of hell to remind patients of the need to repent of their sins.

One of the lucky patients who lived to tell the tale was Hans Memling (c1430-1494), a German who moved to Flanders and was made a citizen of Bruges. The story goes that in gratitude to the sisters of the Sint-Janshospitaal, he donated some of his masterpieces that are still on display.

Once you’re stated with witch hunts, you might want to restore yourself with his portraits. They are refreshingly free of the horrors of witchcraft, damnation and early medicine and instead focus on healthy-looking subjects.

The Portrait of a Young Woman shows a richly-dressed woman with a high forehead then considered a sign of great beauty. It’s a feature accentuated by a dexterously painted gauze veil.

Memling’s skill in depicting detail is also apparent in the diptych of The Virgin and Martin van Nieuwenhove. It twins a prosperous-looking merchant in a velvet doublet, every bit the wealthy man of the world, with an equally rich-looking Madonna and child.

They pre-date the upsurge in witchery and eschew the bitter weather as a window behind the Madonna gives on to summery green countryside devoid of the sinister.

Barbara Lewis © 2016.

Antwerpen, Museum Mayer van den Bergh
(c) Zentralbibliothek Zürich, Wickiana
(c) Albertina, Wenen
(c) MAS, Antwerpen
© Sarah Bauwens
(c) Noordbrabants Museum
(c) Noordbrabants Museum
(c) Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wenen
(c) Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux
(c) Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai