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Sacred and Profane: Christian Imagery and Witchcraft in Prints by Hans Baldung Grien

by Stan Parchin

A series of foreboding events contributed to Renaissance man's bleak view of the world. The 1347 onset of the catastrophic Black Death, its recurrent outbreaks of the virulent plague and the four phases of the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) between the English and French realms hastened the disruption of medieval Europe's feudal system and economy. The growing spiritual dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church, exacerbated by the Great Schism (1378-1417), found expression in popular movements of heretical thought that many fifteenth-century popes sought to suppress while trying to quell criticism of their opulent lifestyles. Before and during the Age of Exploration, frightening notions of hirsute wild men, women and their families on the Continent joined those of monstrous races, the hideous inhabitants of undiscovered regions beyond Western Europe. Along with such ideas blossomed the imagined existence of witches, individuals who used sorcery (the magical manipulation of nature's forces) to achieve their desired goals. The social anxieties produced by this set of overwhelmingly dark circumstances found expression in the visual arts, particularly north of the Alps. Among those who depicted them graphically was Hans Baldung Grien (1484/85-1545), German painter, draftsman, printmaker and designer.

Hans Baldung was born in 1484/85, perhaps in Schwäbisch Gmünd, southwestern Germany, part of the Holy Roman Empire. He came from a family of doctors, lawyers and scholars, although Baldung was the sole male member of his lineage never to obtain a university degree. The young Baldung may have received his earliest training around 1500 in the Upper Rhineland by an artist from Strasbourg, France. From 1503 to 1507, the youth apprenticed in the Nuremberg atelier or workshop of Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). The foremost German artist of his day, Dürer's two trips to Italy in 1495 and 1505-1507, along with his studies of geometry, mathematics and Humanist works, profoundly influenced his oeuvre. It was in the master's workshop that Baldung acquired the German sobriquet "Grien," either because of his preference for the color green in his works and/or clothing or to distinguish him from Dürer's three other pupils also christened with the first name Hans. Some art historians think that Baldung supervised Dürer's atelier during his second sojourn to Italy. At that time, the artist was responsible for the production of stained-glass designs, woodcuts and engravings. After a possible stay in Halle, beginning in 1507, where he was commissioned to paint two altarpieces, Baldung returned to Strasbourg in 1509 and became a citizen there. The following year, he married, joined a guild and opened his own workshop.

During his apprenticeship to lifelong friend Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung drew A Monk Preaching (ca. 1505). A view of religious devotion in early sixteenth-century Germany, this sensitively executed sheet illustrates a clergyman delivering a sermon from a pulpit to three attentive worshippers. A plaque mounted on the wall behind the monk's raised left hand features an image of Christ sitting in judgment with arms outstretched, perhaps a reference to the subject of the preacher's homily. Baldung poignantly captured the listeners' emotions, particularly those of the pious seated woman whose right hand clutches her heart in a motion indicating spiritual arousal by the monk's inspirational words. Two columns of uneven heights, surmounted by an arch of leafless branches or vines, frame the drawing's compact interior space, suggesting that this drawing may have been executed as a design for a stained-glass window.

Image © J. Paul Getty Museum; Used with permission
Hans Baldung Grien (German, 1484/85-1545)
A Monk Preaching, ca. 1505
Pen and brown ink and black chalk
30.8 x 22.4 cm (12 1/8 x 8 13/16 in.)
© J. Paul Getty Museum

In 1511, Baldung tackled the Old Testament narrative of Adam and Eve. He already mastered the difficult art of the chiaroscuro woodcut. (Subtle gradations of color were achieved by the use of more than one woodcut block in the printed image's production.) Baldung infused his tan tone print with new kinds of erotic symbolism, indicating a distinct departure from the traditional artistic representation of the Fall of Man. Here a contradiction exists between Adam and Eve's presumed shame for their disobedience to God and their patently obscene behavior as presented boldly to the viewer. Hanging from a tree branch above Adam's head is a horizontal plaque. Engraved in Latin, it announces: LAPSVS HVMANI GENERIS (The Fall of Mankind). Baldung places the couple's monumental bodies within an uncharacteristically dark and eerie Garden of Eden. Adam's assault of Eve's swollen left breast from behind, as he reaches for the forbidden fruit above them, is nothing less than provocative. The overtly sexual imagery of the artist's novel composition illustrates Baldung's conviction that carnal lust was the reason for Mankind's Fall from Grace, with Eve as the story's seductive protagonist. This explanation is deliberately reinforced by two rabbits at the foot of the left-hand tree in Baldung's print. Although seemingly benign in appearance, the pair of hares (with one's hind quarters facing the viewer) is a Late Gothic symbol for wanton and lascivious bestial sexuality. The looming presence of evil in Baldung's ominous forest is represented by the unusually oversized slithering serpent coiled around a tree trunk next to Adam and Eve, hissing viciously at the unsuspecting sinners.

Image © Board of Trustees, National 
Gallery of Art, Washington; Used with permission
Hans Baldung Grien (German, 1484/85-1545)
Adam and Eve, 1511
Chiaroscuro woodcut, sheet
37.7 x 25.7 cm (14 13/16 x 10 1/8 in.)
Rosenwald Collection, 1943.3.907
© Board of Trustees, National
Gallery of Art, Washington

The number of Hans Baldung's religious works diminished with the Protestant Reformation's discouragement of idolatry. Around the same time that he produced Adam and Eve, the artist became interested in themes related to death, the supernatural, witchcraft and sorcery. That Mankind's mortality became a subject for Baldung was not unusual, considering his graphic interpretation of Adam and Eve's transgression; it had visual precedents in works by fifteenth-century Northern European artists. Their influence is apparent in Baldung's Death and the Maiden (1511), a painting in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. A ghoulishly skeletal corpse suspends an hourglass above a self-absorbed naked female, portending the erosion of a woman's youth as well as her imminent demise, in a fitting memento mori that reminds one of his or her own death.

In Summis desiderantes affectibus (Desiring with supreme ardor), Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-1492) defined the Catholic Church's defensive stance against witchcraft. Giovanni Battista Cibo, the Italian pontiff, acknowledged its existence by his subsequent approval of the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) in 1486, a notorious manual written to apprehend witches. Authored by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, German inquisitors of the Dominican Order, their text, amusing yet often fantastic by modern standards, was reprinted in numerous editions well into the Sixteenth Century.

Three blatantly naked women gather around a cauldron in Hans Baldung's Witches' Sabbath (1510). Their nocturnal setting is reminiscent of the artist's gloomy forest in his Adam and Eve prints. Pitchforks, like broomsticks and shovels (believed methods of witches' supernatural transportation), are scattered haphazardly in the print's foreground. An undecipherable pseudo-Hebraic inscription appears directly below the vessel's rim. The diabolical coven's infernal and vaporous concoction explodes, vomiting undefined objects. With her right hand held above her head, an aged nefarious hag serves an unsavory platter of apparently dead poultry, perhaps a sacrificial offering to Satan. A fourth witch, seated backwards and astride a flying goat, gleefully sails above her sisters' heads in a deliberate perversion of the natural order, a malevolent act of gay abandon defying gravity by means of transvection. Rest assured that the women depicted in Baldung's print are fundamentally wicked. They intentionally manipulate the world around them as did Eve in the artist's early prints that cleverly depict the Fall of Man.

Image © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Used with permission
Hans Baldung Grien (German, 1484/85-1545)
Witches' Sabbath, 1510
Chiaroscuro woodcut printed in
black and gray-green
34.5 x 24.5 cm
Museum purchase, Achenbach Foundation for
Graphic Arts Endowment Fund, Ludwig A. Emge
Fund and Gift of Ruth Haas Lilienthal, 1984.1.111
© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Baldung's fascination with witchcraft, which lasted well into the end of his career, culminated in his enigmatic Bewitched Groom (1544). Brandishing a fiery torch with her withered left breast exposed, a hideous witch intrudes upon a quiet stable. The horse's bearded groom suddenly lies immobile on the floor, his perturbed steed gazing at him. One scholarly interpretation of the print concludes that the witch provoked the horse to kick its groom unconscious. Yet another explanation ties the print's imagery to sixteenth-century German tales of witches and demonic possession.

Image © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Used with permission
Hans Baldung Grien (German, 1484/85-1545)
Bewitched Groom (Sleeping Groom and a
), 1544
33.9 x 19.9 cm
Bequest of Ruth Haas Lilienthal, 1975.1.80
© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Hans Baldung Grien took the art of printmaking to a new height during the first half of the Sixteenth Century. This wealthy artist incorporated unusual themes, such as witchcraft, into his work, making his imaginative paintings and prints a veritable record of Christian belief and superstition in Renaissance Germany.

For further reading:

Boorsch, Suzanne and Nadine M. Orenstein.
The Print in the North: The Age of Albrecht
Dürer and Lucas van Leyden
(exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.

An excellent survey of The Metropolitan Museum of Art's German Renaissance prints from Martin Schongauer (ca. 1445-1491) to beyond Hans Baldung Grien (1484/85-1545).

Husband, Timothy (ed.).
The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.

The imaginary hirsute wild man and other monstrous races were very real to Europeans in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This catalogue of a special exhibition held at The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's branch of medieval art in New York City's Fort Tryon Park, explains their imagery and significance in numerous artworks of various media.

Marrow, James H. and Alan Shestack (eds.).
Hans Baldung Grien: Prints & Drawings (exh. cat.).
Washington, D.C: National Gallery of Art and New
Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 1981.

A thorough and fully illustrated treatment of Hans Baldung Grien's works on paper presented in a landmark American exhibition of his graphic art. This volume is a must-have for any serious scholar of Northern Renaissance art and culture.

Related special exhibitions:

The Lust of Witches and the Fall of Man, a special exhibition devoted to two recurring themes in the art of Hans Baldung Grien, will be on view at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany from February 23 to May 13, 2007. Drawings and woodcuts, many of them risqué, depict women from Eve, the first woman in the Old Testament Book of Genesis, through the artist's fantastic images of sixteenth-century witches. They accompany the artist's tempera on panel Zwei Hexen or Two Witches (1523). Assembled together, the works illustrate Baldung's view of powerful female eroticism, Renaissance German society's belief in witches and how the very real presence of syphilis complicated the medieval ideal notion of love in a vast geographical region of the Holy Roman Empire.

London's Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery will be displaying Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve from June 21 to September 23, 2007. The symbolism of the gallery's famous oil on panel painting Adam and Eve (1526) by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553), a contemporary of Hans Baldung Grien, will be explored. The work will be accompanied by related drawings, paintings and prints by the artist and his Northern Renaissance contemporaries, many borrowed from international collections.


From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.

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