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Jacques de Gheyn II, Dutch, 1565-1629

Sorceress with a Quill Pen, c. 1610-20 

Hold­ing an extrav­a­gant quill pen, a bare-breast­ed woman looks down at an open book. She is like­ly a sor­cer­ess in the act of writ­ing since Jacques de Gheyn II depict­ed witch­es like this in other works. For instance, the artist often imbued his sub­jects with an erot­ic appeal, depict­ed their spell books, or gri­moires, and por­trayed them as left-hand­ed (which was a deviance accord­ing to con­tem­po­rary thought). His empha­sis on a seem­ing­ly dis­pas­sion­ate moment rather than the more spir­it­ed ele­ments found in other works, how­ev­er, may reflect the skep­ti­cism about witch­craft debat­ed at that time with­in De Gheyn’s cir­cle of schol­ar­ly friends. This atyp­i­cal com­bi­na­tion of motifs also demon­strates the artist’s tal­ent for explo­ration and exper­i­men­ta­tion in his draw­ing practice.

Jacques de Gheyn II clear­ly had an inter­est in witch­craft, which he con­veyed in dozens of draw­ings, and in one major engrav­ing, The Witch­es’ Sab­bath Fig. 4.1.1

Andries Stock, after Jacques de Gheyn II, The Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath
Fig. 4.1

Andries Stock, after Jacques de Gheyn II, The Prepa­ra­tion for the Witch­es’ Sab­bath. Engrav­ing from two plates, 435 × 658 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. RP-P1882-A-6180

With­out that body of work, it would be dif­fi­cult to assess the sta­tus of this pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished draw­ing of a bare­breast­ed woman who holds a flam­boy­ant quill pen in her left hand as she focus­es on an open book. This iconog­ra­phy is high­ly unusu­al for the depic­tion of a sor­cer­ess. In fact, she accords well with the artis­tic con­ven­tions of bare-breast­ed cour­te­sans found in Venet­ian Renais­sance art among Tit­ian and his fol­low­ers and, in De Gheyn’s day, in the oeu­vre of his own mas­ter Hen­drick Goltz­ius (1558 – 1617).2

There are nev­er­the­less com­pelling rea­sons to con­sid­er that the true sub­ject of this draw­ing is a sor­cer­ess in the act of writing.

The wom­an’s left-hand­ed­ness rep­re­sents an impor­tant clue. One might assume that such a deviance” (to the con­tem­po­rary mind) would also be attrib­ut­able to pros­ti­tutes, yet De Gheyn made a point of mak­ing many of his witch­es left­hand­ed. For exam­ple, in the above­men­tioned engrav­ing of the Witch­es’ Sab­bath, the seat­ed witch uses her left hand to stir the pot, as does the one stand­ing above her to ges­tic­u­late with her stick. Rever­sals of hand­ed­ness” were some­times inher­ent to the mir­ror effect caused by the print­ing process. Clau­dia Swan con­vinc­ing­ly argued, how­ev­er, that De Gheyn intend­ed this rever­sal, and that he delib­er­ate­ly employed the con­cept of inver­sion (mean­ing the nat­ur­al world turned upside down or run back­ward) found in witch­craft imagery from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.3

In some of De Gheyn’s other pro­duc­tions, such as his famous arms-train­ing series called the Wapen­han­delinge, he made sure that the sol­diers appeared right-hand­ed in print in order to con­form with actu­al prac­tice. De Gheyn like­wise shows witch­es stir­ring or point­ing with their left hands in a num­ber of draw­ings, such as the Four Witch­es Cook­ing Parts of a Human Body in New York, and Two Witch­es Per­form­ing an Incan­ta­tion in Oxford.4

While De Gheyn’s imagery can often be obscure and com­plex, in other instances where he fea­tures nude or par­tial­ly nude women, they often cor­re­spond to con­ven­tion­al sub­jects, such as the pros­ti­tute-turned-saint Mary Mag­da­lene, Pomona (with Ver­tum­nus), or Helen of Troy (with Paris).5

Bar­ring these iden­ti­fi­ca­tions, a sor­cer­ess seems the most obvi­ous solu­tion in this case. Since there was already a long tra­di­tion of depict­ing old and hag­gard witch­es in tan­dem with young and volup­tuous ones, De Gheyn appro­pri­at­ed the pre­vi­ous iconog­ra­phy of cour­te­sans to add a cer­tain erot­ic appeal. His younger col­league and occa­sion­al busi­ness part­ner, Jan van de Velde II (1593 – 1641), made use of a sim­i­lar mode of rep­re­sen­ta­tion for his mas­ter­piece engrav­ing, The Sor­cer­ess, from 1626 Fig. 4.2.6

Jan van de Velde II, The Sorceress
Fig. 4.2

Jan van de Velde II, The Sor­cer­ess, 1626. Engrav­ing, 216 × 290 mm. Ams­ter­dam, Rijksmu­se­um, inv. no. RP-P-OB-15.310.

Depict­ing a witch occu­pied with writ­ing may seem unusu­al, but spell­books, or gri­moires, appear in sev­er­al of De Gheyn’s witch­craft images, par­tic­u­lar­ly his large, fin­ished Sab­bath scenes that inher­ent­ly fea­ture the incan­ta­tion of spells. One can find them in the Witch­es’ Sab­bath draw­ings in Berlin and Stuttgart, and the two in Oxford.7

Unlike the books off to the side in Van de Velde’s engrav­ing, De Gheyn almost always por­trayed his witch­es active­ly engaged with their books. This aspect of sor­cery is uncom­mon in pre­vi­ous witch­craft imagery by other artists and appears to have been a par­tic­u­lar inter­est of De Gheyn’s. One of his most unusu­al draw­ings fea­tures a gri­moire cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly propped up on a skull lying on a cush­ioned pedestal, with stud­ies of var­i­ous con­tort­ed toads around it Fig. 4.3.8

Jacques de Gheyn II, Sheet of Studies of Attributes Used in Witchcraft
Fig. 4.3

Jacques de Gheyn II, Sheet of Stud­ies of Attrib­ut­es Used in Witch­craft. Pen and brown ink on paper, 94 × 353 mm. Paris, Fon­da­tion Cus­to­dia, inv. no. 6863.

The book appears from two dif­fer­ent van­tage points, one of which reveals the con­tents of the open page: a hand in a cir­cle, or hand of glory,” used for invo­ca­tion.9

This imagery can be found in copies of gri­moires that sur­vive from the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, such as the pop­u­lar Sleu­tel van Solomono (Key of Solomon).10

Due to their illic­it nature, these books had to be copied by hand rather than print­ed, and sur­viv­ing copies are only encoun­tered in man­u­script form.11

That De Gheyn depict­ed a sor­cer­ess writ­ing or copy­ing a gri­moire appears to be the most like­ly expla­na­tion for the com­bi­na­tion of ele­ments in this draw­ing. It con­sti­tutes an unusu­al sub­ject both in his oeu­vre and with­in the larg­er body of witch­craft imagery of the era. This sor­cer­ess, in the quiet moment of her stu­dious exer­cise, con­trasts marked­ly with De Gheyn’s dra­mat­ic witch­es’ Sab­bath imagery with its spells, crea­tures, and corpses. De Gheyn’s atti­tude toward witch­es and witch­craft is a large and com­plex sub­ject in itself, but it should be noted that his artis­tic treat­ment comes at a time in which a rev­o­lu­tion of thought took place, at least in the Unit­ed Provinces. Many of the myths and super­sti­tious lore around witch­craft were exposed as hav­ing no basis in real­i­ty, result­ing in a trans­for­ma­tion of the legal treat­ment of those accused of witch­craft.12

Much of this has been cred­it­ed to the appear­ance of the 1609 Dutch trans­la­tion of the Dis­cov­er­ie of Witch­craft by Regi­nald Scot, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Eng­lish in 1584, which offered the first thor­ough skep­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tion of witch­craft prac­tices. Work on this trans­la­tion was car­ried out in Lei­den by De Gheyn’s broth­er-in-law, Robert Brossard, along with his father, Thomas Bossard, who pub­lished it.13

The book was read and debat­ed in the same uni­ver­si­ty cir­cles in which De Gheyn moved dur­ing his ear­li­er res­i­dence in that city.14

Since De Gheyn craft­ed most of his witch­craft imagery around the same time, one can assume that he took an inter­est in under­stand­ing the cur­rent debates and skep­ti­cism, while at the same time tak­ing advan­tage of the more obvi­ous­ly fan­tas­ti­cal side of witch­craft for artis­tic explo­ration. De Gheyn often empha­sized some of the most grue­some and far-fetched prac­tices of witch­es in his art, mak­ing this noise­less and seem­ing­ly tran­quil image of a lit­er­ate and eroti­cized sor­cer­ess all the more notable for its con­trast and its inher­ent originality.

End Notes

  1. While the sub­ject of De Gheyn’s witch­craft imagery is a large one, for key con­sid­er­a­tions, see espe­cial­ly in the con­cur­rent­ly appear­ing books Swan 2005, 123 – 94; and Hults 2005, 145 – 75. Other con­sid­er­a­tions include Jud­son 1973, 27 – 34; Van Regteren Alte­na 1983, vol. 1, 86 – 89; Löwen­steyn 1986; David­son 1987, 57 – 64; Löwen­steyn 2011; and Zika 2016. For De Gheyn’s witch­craft sub­jects in his draw­ings, see Van Regteren Alte­na 1983, vol. 2, 83 – 87, nos. 510 – 31. For the engrav­ing, see New Holl­stein (De Gheyn Fam­i­ly), vol. 1, 235, no. 155; and Swan 1999.

  2. See, for exam­ple, Goltz­ius’s draw­ing of Mary Mag­da­lene in the Her­mitage, St. Peters­burg; Reznicek 1961, vol. 1, 261, no. 78, vol. 2, pl. 418. For De Gheyn’s evi­dent inter­est in Venet­ian Renais­sance art, see the newly pub­lished draw­ing in Ack­ley 2015, 436 – 38, fig. 4.

  3. The left-hand­ed­ness in this print and the con­cept of inver­sion is the pri­ma­ry sub­ject of Swan 1999.

  4. For the draw­ing in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, New York, see Van Regteren Alte­na 1983, vol. 2, 86, no. 524, vol. 3, pl. 342. For the draw­ing in the Ash­molean Muse­um, Oxford (not in Van Regteren Alte­na’s cat­a­logue), see Löwen­steyn 2011.

  5. For these draw­ings, and his iden­ti­fi­ca­tions of the fig­ures, see Van Regteren Alte­na 1983, nos. 83, 84 (Mary Mag­da­lene), no. 1050 (Pomona), and 493 (Helen of Troy). Less clear is the role, if any, of the sim­i­lar­ly clad woman, in a sheet of stud­ies in the Lou­vre; idem, no. 528.

  6. Holl­stein, vols. 33 – 34, no. 152

  7. Van Regteren Alte­na 1983, vol. 2, 85, no. 522, pl. 272 (Berlin); idem, vol. 2, 84 – 85, no. 519, pls. 337 – 39 (Stuttgart, prepara­to­ry for De Gheyn’s one engrav­ing of the sub­ject); idem, vol. 2, 86, no. 523, pl. 273 (Oxford); and Löwen­steyn 2011 (Oxford, not in Van Regteren Alte­na 1983).

  8. Van Regteren Alte­na 1983, vol. 2, 139, no. 892, vol. 3, pl. 386. For this draw­ing, see also Jud­son 1973, 28 – 29; Paris 1985, 46 – 48, no. 15, pl. 10; and Boon 1992, vol. 1, 160 – 62, no. 86, vol. 3, pl. 187.

  9. Boon 1992, vol. 1, 161.

  10. For gri­moires in this peri­od, see Davies 2009, 44 – 92.

  11. David­son 1987, 63 – 64.

  12. For the his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion, see espe­cial­ly De Blé­court & Gijswi­jt-Hof­s­tra 1986; and Gijswi­jt-Hof­s­tra & Fri­jhoff 1991; as well as fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tions in Swan 2005; and Hults 2005.

  13. See Van Regteren Alte­na 1983, vol. 1, 86; and Löwen­steyn 1986, 250 – 51.

  14. Boon 1992, vol. 1, 162.