Theater scene: two women making a call on a witch (the three of them wear theater masks). Roman mosaic from the Villa del Cicerone in Pompeii, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples). Work of Dioscorides of Samos.
Witches have a long and elaborate history. Their forerunners appear in the Bible, in the story of King Saul consulting the so-called Witch of Endor. They also crop up in the classical era in the form of winged harpies and screech-owl-like “strixes” – frightening flying creatures that fed on the flesh of babies. (– Alastair Sooke.)
Abandoned by God, desperate to get a reply from Him, Saul summons witches to foretell his future. Scrolls in the skies cite passages from the Bible. In the center, inside a magic circle, a witch is crafting her witchery.
The tumultuous 16th and 17th centuries were ‘golden age’ of witchcraft imagery. Witch trials convulsed Europe, witch-hunts lasting from 1550 to 1630.
“Across Europe, there was the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, fantastic poverty and social change,” says Petherbridge. “Even King James in his text Daemonologie  was asking: why was there such a proliferation of witches? Everybody assumed it was because the world had got so foul that it was coming to an end.” As a result there was an outpouring of brutally misogynistic witchcraft imagery, with artists taking advantage of the invention of the printing press to disseminate material rapidly and widely.(– Deanna Petherbridge, artist and writer.)
Frans Francken the Younger: Witches’ Kitchen, c. 1610:
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
A fine recipe from the three Shakespearean witches — an easy meal for the whole family to enjoy.
In the 19th Century, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Symbolists were both drawn to the figure of the witch, whom they recast as a femme fatale. But their sinister seductresses arguably belong more to the realm of sexual fantasy than high art.
The Sorceress is a painting by John William Waterhouse completed between 1911 and 1915.
And a rather non-threatening witches of Jean-Baptiste Monge:
Many art critics agree that throughout the history of the art having the witchcraft imagery as its subject the one constant is — surprise, surprise! — misogyny (save the sexy Pre-Raphaelites’ sorceresses, obviously, which more comfortably fall into the category of sexual objectification.)“I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.”
―Henry David Thoreau