Saul and the Witch of Endor by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen

Saul and the Witch of Endor, 1526, Oil on panel, 85.5 x 122.8 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, SK-A-668, Photo: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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Wild and Untamed

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Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen’s Saul and the Witch of Endor (1526) was painted at the very beginning of the witch craze in early modern Europe, and anticipates later, lurid depictions of the woman of Endor as a fearsome hag. The early modern period saw differences between male and female magic. While the learned magic of the magus could be seen as divinely sanctioned, even respectable, woman’s magic was considered ‘wild’ and ‘untamed’, like the natural world with which women’s bodies were so often compared (Merchant 1980: 127–48).

The unruliness of women’s magic, and its relationship to the respectable art of the male magus, is at the heart of Van Oostsanen’s depiction of the woman of Endor. On the one hand, we notice several references to a well-known Renaissance grimoire of learned magic, The Key of Solomon the King. The woman is depicted in the midst of a spirit-conjuration as instructed by the Key: the grimoire requires the magus to draw a protective circle around himself while reciting psalms, lighting incense, and writing the name of God. Hence the two tapers in the woman’s hands, the circle at her feet, and her half-open mouth, poised as if to speak. Deus, ‘God’, is the last word on the page of the book from which the woman is reading (Peacock 2017: 663; Mathers and Peterson: 2016).

Yet those attributes of the learned magus which seem to elevate the woman’s status also debase her by the same stroke. In Van Oostsanen’s painting the woman transgresses gender roles in a manner clearly meant by the painter to be an occasion for ridicule rather than reverence: her bared, sagging breasts, puckered skin, and generally unlovely visage gesture at the perceived unloveliness of her work. A dark cloud and a host of strange-looking creatures descend from top right, alluding to the unruly forces of the natural world and to the direct connection women were thought to have with these powers. And the woman of Endor herself is unruly, trespassing as she does on a man’s circle of power, speaking words reserved for a male magus.

While Van Oostsanen’s woman of Endor is made to perform the respectable magic of Solomon, the fact that she is a woman means that her execution of learned magic can only ever be a performance: at bottom she remains the ‘witch’ and evildoer of the painting’s title.

 

References

Merchant, Carolyn. 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: HarperCollins)

Moffitt Peacock, Martha. 2017. ‘Magic in Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen’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

Peterson, Joseph (ed.), and S. L. MacGregor-Mathers (trans.). [1889] 2016. The Key of Solomon the King: Clavicula Salomonis. A Magical Grimoire of Sigils and Rituals for Summoning and Mastering Spirits (Newburyport, MA: Weiser)


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