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I spent an interesting couple of hours at the National Gallery in London yesterday, contributing to a podcast on Salvator Rosa’s 1646 painting of ‘Witches at their Incantations’ – deeply unpleasant painting representing all the nasty folk myths about what so-called ‘witches’ got up to at their ‘sabbats’.  It’s unpleasant not just because of what it shows, but because it is an image informed by a couple of centuries of misogynist nastiness promulgated by those who perpetrated the ‘Great Witch Hunt’ in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in Europe – torturing and executing hundreds of thousands of (mainly) older women.

Beyond the awful context of the image itself, it was interesting to start to think through the spatialities of witchcraft at the time.  The popular myths claimed (though they varied a lot) that witches flew to the sabbats either on broomsticks (the Rosa has one prominently displayed centre-right), on the backs of demons sent by the Devil (far right on the Rosa) or simply summoned by the Devil.  This caused a few problems for the ultra-religious witch-hunters because not only were they attributing powers to the witches and the Devil that only their God was supposed to have, but also because they had to go through all sorts of spatio-temporal contortions to explain where and when such meetings took place.  It is from this, for example, that we get the idea of the ‘witching hour’ – that strange non-time starting at midnight (the 13th hour) when witches go about their business.  This produced further problems because they then needed to explain how these strange places came to be ‘witnessed’ by those who informed the witchfinders.

In effect what the witch-hunters created for their victims was a form of xenospace – fictional but functional because it could not be disproved empirically (and could only be ‘proved’ by criteria known to the witch-hunters themselves), and because it allowed for the creation of an external space of demonic evil.  Rosa, like Shakespeare in Macbeth, depicts it as a sort of noisome ‘blasted heath’.  This is historically as well as iconographically significant because one of the reasons the ‘witches’ were persecuted was because they were often peasants or cottagers living on common land.  Witches are routinely depicted as inhabiting boundary-spaces – the edges of settlements, the space between life and death (especially in traditional roles such as midwifery) and/or wasteland.  As Sylvia Federici has argued in her extraordinary book, Caliban and the Witch, it was not by coincidence that this genocidal war against women took place alongside the rapid ‘enclosure’ of common land and/or ‘wastes’ and their incorporation into the growing agricultural estates.  In a similar vein, the prominent 16th century French legal theorist, Jean Bodin, whose book ‘On Sovereignty’ remains a standard text for political and state theorists, also wrote ‘The Demonomania of Witches’ and himself participated in witch trials.  Needless to say, the latter book has been largely swept under the carpet by both political theorists and Bodin scholars alike.

There is no indication that Rosa had any direct connection with the witch-hunts.  Rather he seems to have used the imagery rather opportunistically – realising there was a ready market for grotesquely salacious images that would give his audience a bit of a thrill.  Indeed, ‘Witches at their Incantations’ was bought directly from Rosa by the Roman banker Carlo di Rossi, who kept it behind a curtain in his home, revealing it with a flourish to guests at the end of tours of his collection – no doubt to gasps of astonishment at his daring.