On miraculous mirrors, witches, and suicides

I already wrote a few postings about Ancient Egypt and its mirrors, but it still barely scratches the surface, of course, and there are many more dimensions and directions one can further explore. For example, all these famous stories telling how skilfully Egyptians (re)directed the sunlight inside their pyramids, are they true or not? Can Egyptian make fire using their glasses (which in turn leads to the question whether they had the capability to produce glass lenses (or even glass mirrors).  An entirely different subject is the use of mirrors in what we can call ‘magical practices’, being it prophecy and foretelling, or witchery in the broadest sense.

The painting above is seemingly not from Ancient Egypt, and not even about Ancient Egypt per se. However, there are some interesting connections (plus, it does have a mirror depicted on it), and why not to tell this story, thought I?

In fact, I have already written about its author, the Dutch (even specifically Amsterdam) artist Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, so I can skip a general introduction here. Since the time of this previous posting we also managed to visit an interesting exhibition, in the Museum of Amsterdam, so I know much more about his art, and his time in general. We didn’t find any mirrors in that exhibition, though, and so I didn’t write any follow-up posting.

However, this painting was not a part of the exhibition, although it’s currently in the same city, Amsterdam. The work is in Rijksmuseum, but I haven’t seen it there either, when we went there this summer. Perhaps it is currently in the archives, I don’t know; just in case, the museum has an extensive online collection, and one can find this work there.

The title of the painting ‘King Saul and the Witch of Endor’, and it’s made in 1526 году. This is not a very big work, ~80 х 120 cm, but it filled with the figures pretty densely, and has a characteristic Boschian atmosphere.

The plot depicted here, about Saul and the Witch, was apparently very well-known in Europe, moreover, it was a very important, significative topic. I am not sure it is the case anymore, and its significance is definitely of a lesser weight than before.

The question of whether witches exist or not was not of minor importance during the times of van Oostsanen, say, end of 15th – beginning of 16th century. In fact, the question had a very certain answer (they do) provided by the highest authority of the time, the Church and its servants.  Yet, and despite this clarity and also certainty with what to do with them, the substantiation of the very existence of witches may seem to be not so grounded, one could say.

The reason is that there are not mentioning of witches in the Bible.

There are surely no witches in the New Testament.  There are also no unquestionable evidences of the witches in the Old Testament too – expect this very story about King Saul. Not surprisingly, it became quite central in the times of Malleus Maleficarum and subsequent witch-hunting activities.

King Saul, or Saoul, was a legendary ruler of the united Kingdom of Israel and Judah, anointed by the very prophet Samuel. His life is described in the Book of Samuel, a part of the bigger series of the Books of Kings of the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible).  The story itself is rather controversial, because the same Samuel later changed his prophecy, and proclaimed another king for the Jews, young David. There are also various examples showing that Saul was not really obeying the orders from Samuel, and he was also known for his bad temper, or rather mood swings, as we would call them now. But I am not here to clarify all these complex affairs, and basically interested only in one episode of his life.

The death of Saul was tragic, he killed himself during the battle with Philistines, the so called  Battle of Gilboa. During this battle three of his sons died too. The battle, and death of Saul are also depicted fairly often, but it is another moment that happened to be way more popular among artists.

Prior to this battle Saul is inquiring the god about the results of the fight (and thus about his own fate). He is not getting any answer, and thus decided to question the so called Witch of Endor.  Her very presence in the vicinity of Saul should sound like a surprise, because it was the King himself who earlier ordered to expel all the witches and warlocks from his kingdom, as the gross violators of belief in the One and Almighty God.

There are different versions explaining why this very Witch remained living on the territory of his kingdom, and even practicing her witchcraft.  I follow the established tradition that calls her a ‘witch’, although judging what she was actually doing the word ‘oracle’, or ‘foreteller’ would suite better.

The story goes that King Saul changed his dress, and came her anonymously, but the woman was able to recognize his true identity, and also predict his own death in the coming battle. Apparently, during her forecasting session the ghost figure of Samuel himself was called from the Underworld, and it was him who said the sad prophecy.

The painting by van Oostsanen depicts both these accounts, the king approaching the witch, and Samuel raising from the grave:


The whole conduct by Saul is traditionally interpreted very negatively by the Christian tradition: he didn’t listen to the divine words (even the lack of any words is a message that one has to accept), and didn’t obey when he did.  He called a clearly evil force for help, and at the end committed suicide, am ultimate sin (although in some versions he asked one of his soldiers to kill him).

There are few interesting issues here from the posit of view of ‘future studies’. From one side we see here a very accurate forecast, by the witch. On the other side, what if Saul didn’t ask and wouldn’t be told this prophecy? Would he fight better? Or was it his destine in any case? Or – may be it is because he knew about his death, he became weaker and gave up, in other words, it is the very prophecy that killed him.

The text in the Bible apparently specifically stress that Saul started to panic when he say the first failures during the battle, and because he knew everything would get worse, everything did get worth; a clear case of fulfilling prophecy.

It’s all very interesting, but this blog is not so much about the future, but about the past (although I keep saying that it should be more about the future, as it was proclaimed in the founding posting – see Mirror of Future, still a very correct description of the intentions behind this project).

Pasts or futures, but this blog is surely about mirrors; there is one in the painting by van Oostsanen:


The mirror is hold in the paws of a strange bird-like creature, resembling many characters from the worls by Hieronimus Bosch. Similar to the famous mirror by Bosch, this one also reflects fire and smoke, only this time these are the fire and smoke of the fire set in a bowl by the witch. We also see some herbs in this fire – and can only guess what effect they could have on poor Saul.

There are many more signs of witchcraft on the painting, and in fact the whole scene resemble less a session with an oracle but more a witch sabbath, with the owls, goats, ugly satyrs and naked women, with one of them flying on a skull carried by two cocks.  We saw similar scenes (including the mirrors) in the drawings of Hans Baldung – see Bewitched Mirrors of Hans Baldung.

But similar to Baldung, I am also puzzled with the role that this mirror play in the scene: is it aimed to show the future to Saul? or deceive him? or somehow enhance the spells of the witch?

Worth noting that the use of mirror is very rare in the iconography of the scene, which is more often portrayed in a very different manner. Take, from instance, this version, created in 1856 by the Russian painter Nikolai Ge (Николай Ге):

We see very different atmosphere here, with the emphasis on mystical appearance of ghost-like Samuel, and emotional commotion of Saul. There are no mirrors used, and neither any other overtly witchery signs.

A very similar version was painted a year later by another Russian painter, Dmitry Martynov (Дмитрий Мартынов):

Both paintings can be related to a more general tradition established by William Blake who created, around 1800s, a series of drawing depicting various moments of this story.

Supernatural, spirtualistic, mystical – these are the themes expressed by Blake; alas, mirrors play no role in his worlds.

The only other mirror I ever found in the scene depicting Saul and his visit to the oracle/witch is a drawing by Joseph Glanvill. He wrote and in 1681 published a book called Saducismus Triumphatus where he criticised and demystified all sort of prejudices and superstitions (although according to other interpretation his book was actually affirming the existence of the witches and witchcraft!)

The scene with the Witch of Endor was treated as an example of (allegedly wrong) belief in necromancy, i.e., capacity to communicate with the souls dead people. The ground of Glanvill’s critique was his disbelief in ‘souls’ in the first place (being a scientist himself, he was often considered as an atheist by his contemporaries). But then again, some others that his volume (in fact, two volumes) was full of examples and ‘confirmations’ of the malign supernatural powers.

This polemics aside, what is interesting for me is that he placed a mirror in a room where the Witch of Endor is performing her summoning ritual (although the mirror doesn’t play any particular role in the event):


The morale of the work by van Oostsanen is also critical, but his criticism is not about the fools who believe in such crap as witchery (as Joseph Glanvill would framed the story). It is a hundred a fifty years earlier, and to question the existence of witches (and of souls) is truly heretic. The message of van Oostsanen is more about dangers of approaching the evil forces, not so much about their capacity to do harmful things (although here we have some theological thicket: the minsters can not accept that the woman/witch was actually capable to call the Samuel’s soul from the underworld, though they also didn’t deny that this soul was in fact there. The prevailing interpretation was that the witch mislead Saul forcing him to believe that she is communicating with Samuel – and that was wrong, but equally wrong was the Saul’s failure to discard it as hoax.)

Returning to van Oostsanen; his authorship of this work is usually unquestioned, there is a signature on the painting and the date. However, the style of this work, and more importantly, its subject are so very different from the rest of his oeuvre, that I honestly doubt that it is his work.  We have painters – for instance, Salvator Rosa – who consistently created similar works, and in this context the panel by van Oostsanen presents a puzzle.

Salvator Rosa, by the way, also has a painting about this subject:

It is created much later, around 1670s, and is still more ‘witchery’ rather than ‘mystical’ as in Blake. But there are no mirrors here already (although we find them in his other works.)  But that would be another story.




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