Beneath a pitch-dark sky, bizarre and terrifying magical spells are being cast. Monstrous figures, some of them naked, are arranged as if on a stage set, illuminated by scattered pools of light.
In the centre, one witch smokes the corpse of a criminal that hangs from a withered tree while her companion cuts its toenails. In front of them, naked witches use a wax effigy to cast a love spell; another, surrounded by a catalogue of magical aids, stirs a cauldron. On the extreme left, two men exhume a corpse and force it to sign a document while away to the right, a swaddled infant is held above the gaping jaws of a monster.
This macabre scene evokes a witches' sabbath, a gathering where the devil was worshipped. Salvator Rosa developed an interest in the supernatural while working in Florence in the 1640s and probably painted this remarkable picture around 1646.
Beneath a pitch-dark sky, bizarre and terrifying magic spells are being cast. Monstrous figures, some of them naked, are arranged as if on a stage set, illuminated by scattered pools of light. This macabre scene evokes a witches‘ sabbath, a gathering where the devil was worshipped.
At the centre of this ghastly image, a witch smokes the corpse of a criminal that hangs from a withered tree, while a hooded figure cuts its toenails. Seated in front of them on a block of stone, another witch holds a mirror and toys with a small wax effigy. A catalogue of magical aids surrounds the naked figure slumped on ground who squeezes blood out of a rag, or possibly a human organ, and into a cauldron. Nearby, a man in armour bends over a white hare burning inside a magic circle. He is accompanied by two other men: one holds up a broom, the other has a sword upon which a human heart is impaled.
On the left, two ghoulish figures exhume a skeleton and force it to sign a document: this was a form of necromancy, the practice of communicating with the dead. A veiled figure wearing a garland performs a mysterious ceremony behind them. On the right, demonic creatures emerge from the shadows. A giant amphibian-like beast with gaping jaws and bones for arms is ridden by a woman in a yellow turban, while a skeletal bird with a sharp beak looms over the swaddled infant held aloft by a screaming witch. She is seemingly about to sacrifice the child to the monster below.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was still common for people to be accused of and executed for supposed acts of witchcraft and sorcery. Salvator Rosa settled in Florence in 1640, where he developed an avid interest in the supernatural and became part of a group of intellectuals, actors, scientists and artists who shared his fascination with the occult. There are clear parallels between this picture and Rosa’s own satirical poem, La Strega (’The Witch'), which tells of a spurned lover seeking revenge through sorcery. Rosa was a close friend of the Florentine painter poet Lorenzo Lippi, who encouraged his love of the macabre. Both were inspired by the prints of Northern artists such as Hans Baldung and Albrecht Dürer, who also explored themes of witchcraft.
Rosa probably painted this remarkable picture for the Florentine banker and collector Carlo Rossi in around 1646. Such pictures would have appealed to learned collectors who appreciated the bizarre and outlandish, filling their cabinets with natural and artistic curiosities. According to a letter written by Rosa, the painting hung behind a curtain at the end of a long gallery so that it could be dramatically revealed to unsuspecting visitors.
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