Only rarely were witches the subjects of paintings in the German Renaissance. This work by Hans Baldung – who collaborated with Albrecht Dürer for a time – is one of the earliest. In 1523, an art-minded humanist presumably ordered this painting for his cabinet of art and curiosities, not only to look at it but also as a contribution to the debates of his time.
It offers plenty of fodder for conversation, for in it Baldung cleverly interlaced several themes and artistic intentions. Four figures are crowded together in the scene set before an overcast, sulphur-yellow sky – two seductive female nudes, a little boy and a he-goat. The goat, a symbol of the devil, appears too feeble to carry the plump witch who has taken a seat on it – a distinctly ironic commentary on the witch craze of Baldung’s time. The dragon-like creature imprisoned in the flask stands for quicksilver, an element used in salves as an antidote to syphilis, which had been raging in Europe since 1495 on an epidemic scale. One of the witches nevertheless unashamedly looks out at the – male – viewer with a provocative gaze.