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  • Writer's pictureErin

Art - Witches at their Incantations by Salvator Rosa

Perhaps for you, this is a painting you don't want to spend too much time looking at. The dark, twisted, strange and frankly terrifying scene certainly makes me feel pretty uncomfortable.

Witches at their Incantations by Salvator Rosa, 1646 © National Gallery, London

It's pretty odd, even more so considering it was painted in about 1646. At the same time Rembrandt was painting his Self Portrait at the Age of 34, Claude Lorraine was painting The Judgement of Paris, and Velázquez was painting The Rokeby Venus. Ok so the Rokeby Venus was a little bit risqué, but this is on another level.

But do take time to look at it next time you are in the National Gallery (if it's on show that is). It's one of those paintings in which you notice something different each time you look at it. And it just shows how incredible Rosa's imagination really was.

A dark moody sky hangs over a group of figures, some monstrous, others appear to be human. They all seem to be engaged in some sort of magic - be it spells or incantations, strange rites and spiritual rituals. Some parts are lit up by unknown sources, adding to the air of mystery surrounding the painting, but they all seem totally transfixed on whatever they're doing.

I think it's easier to take the painting from left to right, so let's take a look at some areas in more detail.

This is probably one of the most terrifying bits of the painting - two men have exhumed a skeleton and are forcing it to sign a document, while a veiled garlanded figure sits behind them, probably performing a ceremony. Look at the concentration on both their faces, as the man in blue guides the boney hand to write on the paper. They're absolutely ghastly aren't they? And why do they appear to be wearing women's clothes?

Well at least the two men have covered up. This strange group of people are completely naked. On the right, a woman sits on the floor and seems to be squeezing something oozing red liquid into a pot - perhaps an organ, a small animal or a rag. Next to her a piece of paper appears to have writing or symbols on it written in blood.

On the left of her, another figure plays with a doll and a mirror. You'll see here that the artist has signed whatever the figure is sat on. Moving up, a figure cuts the nails of a corspe, whose feet we can we can just see at the top of this section.

Gosh, this part of the painting makes me feel very uncomfortable. The angle of the neck makes my stomach turn, and it's certainly an area of the painting I don't want to linger on. The hanging man is placed just off centre, and is the only figure which isn't placed in the bottom section of the painting - I find it surprising that our eyes aren't drawn to him as soon as we look at the painting though. But perhaps that's a good thing. At the bottom we see the old lady (man?) clipping his nails, and on the left we can see another figure which seems to be holding a pot with an open flame towards him.

Perhaps the artist was inspired by people her had seen practising magic and rituals such as those including in the painting, but I always find it amazing how early artists managed to come up with depictions of strange monsters from their imagination. Today we are brought up with scary children tales, supernatural books and plenty of horror movies, but how on earth did Rosa come up with this?

His interest in the supernatural stemmed from when he moved to Florence in 1640, where he joined a group of other like minded people to explore the subject. This painting is believed to have been for the banker Carlo Rossi who hung it behind a curtain, probably as a talking point for visitors. You can just imagine him giving his guests a tour of his home, and finishing in front of the curtain and dramatically revealing it to his unsuspecting visitors, watching their faces for a reaction.

Heard in London

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