Saul and the Witch of Endor, from German World Chronicle by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Saul and the Witch of Endor, from German World Chronicle, c.1360, Illumination on vellum, 343 x 242 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, MS M.769, fol. 172r, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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A Christological Witch

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In this illumination from a fourteenth-century German chronicle, the anonymous artist shows the spirit of Samuel predicting the downfall of Saul, here shown kneeling in front of Samuel’s opened tomb. The woman of Endor stands left of centre: dressed in a blue gown and red cloak, wearing a white headdress, she is depicted as a person of noble birth, respectable and refined. Confidently she gestures at the spirit of Samuel, while at her feet Saul the king bows in fear.

It is an image quite unlike the sensationalist portrayals of the woman of Endor in many Early Modern illustrations and paintings, which picture the woman as a malefic hag. But the German chronicle was composed well before the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in medieval illuminations like this one it is unusual to see the woman of Endor painted with negative attributes (Peacock 2017: 260–61).

This is despite the fact that the Hebrew Bible contains several prohibitions against magic. 1 Samuel 28 itself is no exception: we are told that, prior to his desire to speak with the spirit of Samuel, Saul had banished all the ‘wizards and mediums’ (v.3). Why then is there no hint of evildoing in this medieval depiction of Saul and the woman of Endor?

The answer may be found by revisiting some of the earliest Christian commentary on this passage (Copeland 2014: 308). While early modern visual interpretations connect the evildoing at Endor to the woman and her profession, many older biblical commentators tended to link the evildoing instead to Saul, the subject, in this story, of God’s anger and of Samuel’s indignation. Origen of Alexandria, for instance, was able to interpret the woman of Endor as a conduit for God’s anger at Saul rather than as an agent of evil, and to compare her to Christ rather than to a sorceress (Murphy 2010: 266; Smelik 1977).

It is this Christ-typology that explains her striking appearance in the German chronicle. Here she is dressed in red, a colour often associated with Christ, and moreover raises a body from an opened grave. Far from being a nefarious act of spirit-conjuration, this (as Origen had suggested) bears a striking resemblance to the story of the raising of Lazarus from his tomb (John 11:1–44; Peacock 2017: 661). 

 

References

Aran Murphy, Francesca. 2010. 1 Samuel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos)

Copeland, Kirsti Barrett. 2014. ‘Sorceresses and Sorcerers in Early Christian Tours of Hell’, in Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World, ed. by Kimberly B. Stratton and Dayna S. Kalleres (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp. 298–318

Peacock, Martha Moffitt. 2017. ‘Magic in Jacob Cornelisz van Oostanen’s Saul and the Witch of Endor’, in Magic and Magicians in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Time: The Occult in Pre-modern Sciences, Medicine, Literature, Religion, and Astrology, ed. by Albrecht Classen (Berlin: De Gruyter), pp. 657–80

Smelik, K.A. D. 1977. ‘The Witch of Endor: 1 Samuel 28 in Rabbinic and Christian Exegesis until AD 800’, Vigilae christianae 33: 160–79


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