Exhibition: Bruegel’s witches

We all know what a witch looks like. If any of us is asked to give a description, the differences would be minimal. Where does this powerful, stereotype image come from? The answer is provided by a fascinating exhibition at Utrecht.

Even without a witch exhibition, Utrecht’s romantic old town centre remains a delight to visit. Utrecht also has more museums than its Catharijneconvent. But who can resist visiting an exhibition about witches and wizards?

Especially, when this exhibition fits in so neatly with a current one at Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam. The Rotterdam one focuses on daily life from Hieronymus Bosch’ era to Bruegel’s time. Utrecht’s Catharijneconvent’s exhibition focuses on a particular folk belief from Bruegel’s era right up to Harry Potter.

As its name suggests, the museum is situated in a former, sprawling convent with two entrances. Enter through either gate and signs direct you to the museum’s recently refurbished entrance building. This not only hosts the ticket counters and entrances to the buildings, but also locker room, museum shop and restaurant.

One takes either an elevator or stairs to an underground passage which leads to the main building of the former convent. The passage itself contains fabulous exhibits, including a facsimile of the Utrecht Psalter. At the end of this passage, one can choose to take another elevator or flight of stairs to various exhibitions including “Bruegel’s Witches”. But next to this elevator lies the entrance to the museum’s treasure room. So why not pay a quick visit to this vault, before heading to the top floor?

Once at the top floor, the exhibition starts on your right. The first of about eight rooms, deals with three themes. The first theme provides information about witch hunts throughout Europe and the Netherlands in particular. The number of victims this mass hysteria claimed in various European countries, is shocking. Over 80% of the victims were women.

This first room shows, persecution was linked to harsh winters, lack of food, diseases in farm animals, wars and similar disasters. People needed to blame others for events they were unable to control, did not understand and which were life-threatening. Saints already had a long history of controlling the weather, harvests and intervene for the good. So surely, the Devil must control others who could cause disasters.

This room has many exhibits linked to persecutions in various countries. Instead of through newspapers and the internet, broadsheets and prints or plain gossip ensured news about witches and witch hunts reached all corners of Europe. Books, paintings, drawings, legal documents, amulets, European wax figures sporting pins and needles, as well as manuals on how to detect a witch or wizard are exhibited.

The room also shows a drawing which Bruegel the Elder made – to illustrate a book – and a print of it. Bruegel drew Saint Jacob visiting and confronting a magician. It is this drawing which formed the basis for our stereotype. The drawing and prints were copied endlessly.

The next room shows how other painters incorporated items from a selection of prints by Bruegel into their own paintings of witchcraft. The first women sitting on brooms can be seen in the margin of a 15th century French manuscript at the start of the exhibition, but are not directly related to the negative fearsome, evil stereotype. Barely a century later, Bruegel has ensured items like brooms, kettles, a black cat, old hag – or young beauty – and other items have become must-haves in any illustration with witch craft as its subject.

The next few rooms include a special one for kids, as well as one which focuses on the role biblical stories and legends had. After Eve and the apple, the perception of women was of course negative. As in the Boijmans exhibition, here can be found paintings of women fighting over trousers, but also examples of prostitution being linked to power over men and thus witchcraft. In society, men might control and dominate women – they clearly thought their hold was precarious and continually under threat.

After these two rooms, the long gallery full of witch kitchens and sabbaths shows how the perception of witchcraft started to change. While witch trials continued, the attitude changed from fear to ridicule. Slowly fear changed into ridicule, belief into disbelieve.

The exhibition’s last room invites visitors to sit on a bed and watch various snippets from films like bed-time stories. The examples range from early Hollywood black and white productions via Disney to the present and Harry Potter. Witches and wizards can still scare, but one knows the good ones always win and isn’t it pretty cool to be able to fly a broom?

One nearly forgets the legal documents in the exhibition’s first room, which describe the prosecution, torture, and burning of victims. Mechteld’s story impressed me most. She lived in the 16th or 17th century and got fed up with her neighbours gossiping about her and accusing her of being a witch behind her back. To put an end to this, she bravely went to court seeking justice. She wrongly believed in justice and the legal system, was tortured and burned alive. Bruegel gave us our stereotype, Disney used it and Harry Potter made witchcraft fashionable. But the stories we grow up with, are based on victims of a mass hysteria; like Mechteld.

The exhibition claims this particular mass hysteria continued to claim victims in Europe till the end of the 18th century. However, accusations still occur, as during the nanny-case in Italy in the 1980s. Moreover, in many a modern European city, some children are still abused, tortured, murdered – because their relatives are convinced these children are devils, witches, wizards.

Though this exhibition might be scary, it is suitable for young and old. Many visitors left remarking it was a “must see” experience. The only draw-back I noticed was, that English text-shields were not available near all exhibits.

Catharijne Convent Utrecht; Bruegel’s Witches can be visited till the end of January 2016


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