Bewitched Mirrors of Hans Baldung

My initial story about Hans Baldung and his mirrors went – well, not exactly wrong, but from a wrong ‘pitch’. At first I found only three of his works with the mirrors – on the picture above these are the three ones on the right.

Having only these three artworks available, I started my quest by exploring the juxtapositions of Flesh vs Bones, then of Life vs Death, and eventually ended up with Time vs Matter or something of this sort; these are all very interesting, but too complex narratives (at least, too complex to fit one small blog posting).

But then I discovered another ‘mirror’ of Baldung, the fourth one (or the first one, if to see chronologically). I found it among his earlier woodcuts belonging to the cycle  traditionally called ‘The Witchery‘. After that findings the things start getting clear (as if magically). This is a newer version of my earlier posting on Hans Baldung and the meaning of the mirrors in his works (and thus, the meaning of these works as such, too).

Let’s start from this new work, the one I found last:

This woodcut was created around 1508 – or more precisely, its original, initially only black & white version was created around that time. The original etching (in fact, the majority of the works in this series) had been made in the so called chiaroscuro technique. I don’t know when this brightly colored version was made, it may be a relatively modern colorization, as late as the 19th century, perhaps.

This colored version of the woodcut displays the mirror much more vividly than the monochrome one (where I didn’t even spot it at first).

The giant convex mirror lays very prominently on the foreground of the depicted scene, but it is, technically speaking, ‘doing nothing’ there; at least, it doesn’t do any ‘mirror work’.

We don’t see anyone looking at this mirror, it doesn’t reflect something or someone.  An interesting details is an apparent crack on its left side (an indication to the incorrectness, corruptness of its reflection, perhaps? we saw a somewhat similar symbolism in the Petrus Christus’s Goldsmith).

The rest of the scene, however, is far from passive; what we see here is, in fact, a full-steam, hyperactive sabbath of the witches (it is the official title of the work today,  “Witches at the Sabbath”). The three naked woman on the foreground are brewing a sinister potion, another one is flying on a goat sitting backwards, and the whole scenery is filled with skulls, bones, animal (and human) remains. Volumes of smoke makes us almost sensing a filthy smell of the horrid happening.

What was going on?  Not necessarily in this artwork, where we see a perfectly depicted sabbath, but around Hans Baldung, both in terms of time and place, for him to produce such a work?

(This is, by the way, only one engraving from the series of his macabre works, depicting witches and witchery; to my knowledge, the rest of them do not have any mirrors, so I don’t copy them here, but a simple Google Image Search will show most of them).

Place-wise, Baldung came from the south of Germany, from Swabia, where he was born in 1484 in Schwäbisch Gmünd. He later moved to the North, to Strasbourg, and then later to Nuremberg, where he joined the workshop of the very Albrecht Dürer. Later in 1513 Baldung would come back to Strasbourg, but when creating this Witchery series he is still with the Durer’s workshop, and is under strong influence of the master, both style-wise and content-wise, so to speak.

Speaking about content, it’s worth mentioning another date here: 1487. This was the year when the first edition of notoriously famous Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) was published. Written by Heinrich Kramer, German clergyman, the book not only provided detailed descriptions of the witches, their signs, features and habits, the ways to detect them, prove their misdoings and eventually terminate them; the book, that was reprinted 13 times in only 25 years, thus becoming the second most popular book after the Bible, also demanded to seek and find witches, and made punishable the lack of vigor and commitment in witch-hunting.

The real scale of the witch hunting and the amount of people (mostly women, of course) who had been killed during these dark years, has been constantly discussed by professional historians; but although the exact figures of victims may vary, few people deny a very strong impact that this book, and subsequent institutionalization of witch hunting had on mass culture, including an escalated interest to this topic in art.

No artist could stay aside; it was not enough to simply accept that witches and witchcraft existed (in fact, saying the opposite would be considered punishable heresy). Even the lack of a proper zeal in witch hunting could cause suspicion (and subsequent investigation). The artist of those times didn’t have much chance of whether to depict witches or not; they had to it, in one form or another. Of course, this social pressure was the same everywhere, but it was definitely very strong in Germany (and we tend to forget about this factor now).

Take, for example, the same Dürer; this 1491 woodcut of him seemingly portray a group of beautiful, mostly naked women. It’s often titled today as Four Women or Four Ladies – or even Four Muses – today.

The official name of the drawing is Vier Hexen (Four Witches); when looking at the drawing more carefully, we may notice a skull a bone laying on the floor, and the demon looking from behind a corner.

To proceed further with this topic, it worth to briefly reiterate a few basic concepts, or constructs, of that time and place (Europe/Early Renaissance). What was exactly the role and functions of the witches in the prevailing – not even worldview, but a cosmology of the day?

According to the prevailing doctrine, the whole world was in a transitional state, in a lasting movement from ‘before’ (and from the now) to some sort of ‘after’, the future – which would happen after a much anticipated, yet terribly dreadful event, popularly known as the Last Judgment.

The painting below, by Stephen Lochner called Der Weltgericht (The Last Judgement) (circa 1435) is chosen relatively arbitrary; there are hundreds, if not thousands similar scenes painted over few centuries:

The game was played by two major parties, and the core gameplay prior to this event was to enroll as many people as possible to their corresponding teams. The Devil (and his associates) were not just sitting and waiting; instead they actively recruited people to his ranks. He was also recruiting the recruiters – and because women were knowingly the witchest link of human kind, his efforts had been primarily targeted to this group; so the origin of witches. Being converted, their task was to lure and seduce people (especially men) into sin, thus recruiting them to the Devil side; they could also convert other women into the witches. The more the sinnier.

A man of virtue had to always stay alert and ready for an attack; a moment of absentmindedness, and your soul is gone. Here, on another etching by Durer, the man just fall asleep for an instant, and the witch is trying to spoil him (it was believed that you can plant really bad ideas into man’s mind by whispering them in his ear while he’s asleep.)

Albrecht Dürer – The Temptation of the Idler (1498)

Not all agents of influence act so subtly; in some cases they may just grab the bull by for the horns, so to speak.

Hans Sebald Beham – Death and the Indecent Pair (1529)

I deliberately left the title as it is presented now – “Lewd couple and the Death”. With such a name the picture can be interpreted as a family memento mori – “If you will engage in sexual wrongdoings, you will soon die.”

The true meaning here is, of course, very different; it was believed that witches could steal a man’s penis (and with it, his immortal soul – and do not ask me what’s the connection).

However, committed my own sin, connecting this to Memento mori, even if in a funny way. I have a tooth on the widespread interpretations of medieval skulls and skeleton as allusions to a kind of Memento mori moral. People tend to completely forget that this sentence comes not only from different culture, but from entirely different cosmology. People in the ancient Rome had been reminded of the death (and brevity of life) to ideally reenforce their dedicated service to the Rome itself (S.P.Q.R); it was a duty of every citizen, who therefore shouldn’t waste his time on useless nonsense.

In Christianity the goals and objectives of life have shifted dramatically; to just die as not a big business, so to speak, and in fact not even your business – God gives, God takes. The real business was to fall in sin, and then die ‘for real’ – or rather, to get an endless torment in the Hell. The saying Memento mori in this new context has entirely changed its meaning.

So when you will be told in the museum in Basel that the engraving by Hans Sebald Beham is called “Three Naked Girls and Death, or Memento mori”, do not believe it it Similar to the Dürer’s engraving, you see here three witches. Doing some knowledge sharing, perhaps.

How women became witches? Perhaps, in this way:

or that:

The works of this genre are usually presented as “The Death and the Maiden.” “Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl. And then she died. o_O.” Well, that’s not exactly what this drawing is about – what is really going here is the ‘recruitment of the recruiters’, how we would call it today.

Also, all these scenes are not about propagating healthy life-stye, where active, sporty behavior and balanced eating would lead to longevity. The code of conduct was almost exactly the opposite – the Body had to be neglected and ignored, and as much as possible, because it is the body where our sinful desires are contained.

In this context, the work below is not “Women in Sauna”, and the same museum tries to reassure us:

And here, too, is not a make-up procedure after the bath.

(This, incidentally, is not the work by Baldung, but by Beham, and he also scores in this mirrors-in-art sport.)

Mirrors, by the way, surprisingly quickly moved from the symbols of “purity” and “grace” (see Speculum sine macula, postmodo or Undertwisted Mirror of Derick Baegert) to the dark and dangerous magical tools.

The list of what an experienced witch could do with a mirror was long, and included summoning both the devil and his assistants, casting numerous spells, imposing curses, causing injuries, physical and mental, deception and fraud, and even ‘stealing the souls’ of innocent people.

It also Beham, although not Hans but Barthel, his brother (Barthel Beham), and he scores in this sport, too.

Do note how the frame of this interesting (double-side? double convex?) mirror is similar to the one depicted by Bosch as a face (or an ass?) of his Green Monster.

What would the witches do in their spare time? Yes, exactly the following:

“Tonight, at exactly half past nine, do bother to strip yourself naked, rub the ointment into your face and entire body. Next do whatever you want, but do not go too far from the phone. At ten I’ll call you and tell you what to do next. You shouldn’t worry about anything, you will be brought to the right place, and nothing is to harm you. Is it clear?” (*)

(*) The quote is from the novel The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, and the image is from the same name Russian movie.

The “right place’ here meant the Sabbath, of course; see also the second picture of this posting (and the first mirror of Baldung) that depicts exactly that kind of event.

The video (linked to the picture above) shows the way the witches traveled incorrectly; they were riding their creatures (mostly goats, but sometimes men) backwards (as in mirror!); Baldung was of course more accurate in his depiction.

And since we talk about the animals, do notice a huge cat sitting behind one of the witches; cats were known companions and often active assistants of the sorceress.

Hans Baldung made a famous serious of the Sabbathes, with vivid scenes of the orgies happening there:

To be clear here – the kids depicted here are not to release oxytocin of the participants (and the viewers); they are to be sacrificed and eaten.

The engraving below could well be the fifth mirror of Baldung – although it is so huge, of the size of a good bath basin, I will put a gentle question mark.

And yes, the cat again, reading a spell book.

Almost all of the works that I have shown so far are engraving (more precisely, woodcuts). But Baldung, like most artists of the time, was a master of all trades, he also making oil paintings and watercolors, and what not (although his earlier works, including the Sabbath series, were all woodcuts). May be worth having in mind that he was only about 19-20 years old when he made all these lustful scenes.

The one below is already an oil painting, with two lovely sensual witches (made around 1523).

Unfortunately, there is no mirror here, but instead we find a rather charming dragon, caught in a jar.

Now the question is, How would you interpreted the following work by Hans Baldung? In the context of what was just told above?

Its official name (as written on the label at the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna) – Die drei Lebensalter und der Tod (“Three Stages of Life and Death”) (1510). (This, incidentally, the same museum that describes the famous two-mirror painting by Bellini as Nude with a mirror).

The description looks like an illustration for a book on developmental psychology in wikipedia – and at this point I almost burst out laughing, discovering that the Russian Wikipedia’s page on this topic is indeed illustrated by the work of Hans Baldung! Not exactly the painting above, but a similar one (in fact, even more inappropriate one, as I will try to show few lines later).

This painting by Baldung was not always called that way – in the late 19th century, when this work just arrived to the collection, it has been described as the Vice and Vanity; at the end of the 1930s it became The Allegory of Transience , and 20 more years later, Death and The Three Ages of Woman. Now we have more generic and gender-neutral ‘the stages of life’. Still, in many online collections this work is often described as The Beauty and the Death (or even Venus and Death.)

Basically, we again see the same phenomenon that I have been already describing in various other ‘mirror stories’ mirror – of not only a complete lack of understanding the meaning of the artwork, but also complete unawareness of such misunderstanding, and as a consequence, a full belief the current interpretation is correct, and in fact is the only possible one. This ‘correct interpretation’ is of course a mere projection of the contemporary cultural matrix, an imprint of current meanings and motives onto the work.  I just checked the term “hermeneutic psychosis”, and it’s seemingly not claimed yet – so, let’s call this situation the Hermeneutic Psychosis (™).

Let’s move on, and talk about the mirror here, the second one of Hans Baldung.

It looks like a hand-held mirror, but its shape and design are rather strange; it resembles more a small wall mirror, that was taken off, and now hold by the woman. There is no visible handle to hold it properly, though.

On one hand, we see here a characteristic ‘mirror cocoon’, the woman seems to be fully immersed the process of self-contemplation. We do not see anything reflected in the mirror – but that’s correct, if we would see something, for example, the face of the woman, it would mean that she looks at us, not at herself.

But is the mirror surface really ’empty’ and clear? Let’s apply some simple filters:

A grinning skull, looking right at us!

Now imagine what I have thought when I saw the cover of one book, published a couple of years in Russia – it’s a student book on Biomedical Ethics (!):

Ok, let’s move from Russia, back to our topic. This theme – let’s call it then “the stages of the witches’ development”  ​​- is also present in many Baldung’s works without any mirrors. Here, for example, a similar painting (that illustrates the page on psychology of development in Russian wikipedia!)

And here is a fragment of this work, showing where the innocent souls would go, if caught by the witches:

A bettle-browed owl, in a kippah of some sort – specially for egmg.

The following work is perhaps the most complete representation of life-span psychology (of witches) by Hans Baldung:

That one is called by the Museum der Bildenden Künste simply as the Seven Ages of Women!

The third mirror work by Baldung is again an engraving:

At this point the interpretation of the depicted scene should not pose any difficulties to the reader.

However, from the point of view of the “mirror work”, it is not a very remarcable piece; it basically repeats the theme of the second mirror (a woman looking at the hand-held mirror, and arranging her hairs – and we don’t even see the reflective surface here).

And the subject itself is also better presented in many of his other works:

As you can guess, both works are now presented (in this case, by Kunstmuseum Basel) as the Death and the Maiden (with an emphasis on the traditional Memento mori).

I recently came across an interesting remake, showing that the author got a much better understand of what’s going on here (even if unconsciously):

The last, fourth mirror of Baldung is a part of diptych. Here is the right side (mirror is depicted only on this panel):

And this is the left panel:

This left panel looks like Oh, so very peaceful and poetic! It’s usually described as the Allegory of Music (and we somehow should not notice a Very Fat White Cat!). The right one is sometimes called Vanity, but you can also find the names like Prudence (hey, look, she holds the mirror! Surely, it’s about Prudence!).

In the museum (and in this case it’s the Alte Pinakothek in Munich) these works are described in a very factual and neutral way – for example, the name of the right panel is Woman, Snake, Deer and Capreolus (1528).

And a skull? Why did they forget to mentiod the other important creture on this painting? The picture I posted above is most likely an old copy, made before the restoration. These panels had been recently restored, and the right one now like this:

The restoration made the skull in the mirror even more visible (although even before it was difficult to miss it – yet all the descriptions did miss it very successfully!) Also interesting that women are red-hair (typical hint of the witchcraft).

W can also speculate about the symbolism of deer (=lustful), and of the snake, and of the musical instruments (not only vanity, but also deception and enchantment).

Mirror-wise I can notice its beautiful, luxurioulsy decorated frame – and pretty colossal size (which should also mean heavy weight, and yet the woman holds it seeminly effortlessly).


The Mirrors of Hans Baldung (at least the second and the fourth) rightly deserve the followig symbol:

But I would like to mention one more feature of these mirror – in almost all previous mirrors in art (except, perhaps, the one by Bosch, his Green Monster), we always saw them inside, “in the interior”. Here we see them in open air, outdoor, so to say. THis is definitely an innovation, deserving its own symbol too.


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