In 2006, at Treadwells bookshop in London, I participated in a discussion of the engraving by Albrecht Durer included here. It is greatly loved by many Wiccans who claim it shows a circle of Four Witches doing a magical ceremony.There is an argument against this interpretation by scholars who, despite the fact that there four women, insist that it depicts The Three Graces.
We analyzed and discussed these interpretations for some time, for no one was really happy with them. We saw that one woman was pregnant and was being directed to go down some stairs. A demon lurks in the doorway. I was impressed by the looks on the womens’ faces. They seemed very grave, obviously about some serious business. The pregnant one in the foreground has an anguished expression. The one with the funny hat seems to be directing the mother-to-be to go down stairs where Hell must be since there is a devil leering in background.
When the facilitator, historian John Callow, wondered the figure with her back turned to the viewer was doing with her hands, my years of art history studies kicked in, and I saw that her hairstyle was the same as Botticcelli’s Venus. From there it was small step to observe that she was holding her hands in the same position, but we see it from behind. Therefore, the woman with her back turned must represent Venus.
Unlike Botticcelli’s vision of loveliness, Durer’s Venus is crude and coarse looking, as is the Madam who directs the fallen woman down the stairs. While Botticcelli depicts an angel, Durer’s women are heavy, earthbound, more human than divine.
Sadly, it would thus appear that, rather than a picture of Four Witches, or even Three Graces, we have here an admonitory message against indulging in the sin of Venery, or sex. Venus, originally a Goddess of the fertile feminine force in nature, was by this time degraded as the patron of whores and prostitutes. Childbirth out of wedlock could ruin a woman’s life, especially of she was lower class. I would wager that the pregnant lady is unmarried, and is now being sent down the stairway to Hell.The Devil is having a good laugh.
And of course, since Durer was making art in the 1490′s and into the 1500, any open sympathy with witchcraft would have been dangerous.
In support of that interpretation, note how in his self portrait, Durer depicts himself as Christ. And drop dead gorgeous too!
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