The Darker Side of Women

By Jordan J.

During the Renaissance, the thought of women dominating over their male counterparts was terrifying. These fears can be seen through the witch trials that were being performed at this time as well as through the art depicting women as wild and animalistic forces of nature.

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, art depicting women as witches participating in intercourse with demons grew rather popular in Europe, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. From these countries and such images emerged the term ‘Power of Women.’  This concept defined art portraying women as empowered and dominating their male counterparts.

The idea of witches functioned mainly as a symbol of the darker side of women: “The social and moral upheaval of the Reformation had effectively weakened the foundations of the Christian faith, a situation which gave rise to increased fear of the occult” (Nurse). Communities took more precautions to find witches, given the ever increasing paranoia of what damage they might spiritually or physically cause. Julia Nurse explains that the witch hunt in Europe was “an idea that fed deeply on built-in prejudices and fears about the power of female-sexuality and capacity for evil. The idea of the act of carnal intercourse with the devil led men to believe that women were more prone to seduction by Satan”(Nurse) This explains heavily why there is more art representing women as witches or having intercourse with demons rather than portraying male witches engaged in demonic couplings. This also explains why many pictures that include men with demons depict the men as dismissing them or at least ignoring them, while women give into the desires.

Two examples of art effectively illustrate these points: Hans Baldung Grien’s pieces “Witches Sabbath”(1510) and “Sleeping Groom and A Sorceress (Bewitched Groom)”(1544). The first piece shows women of different ages partaking in lewd acts, looking twisted and demonic as they perform rituals with animals nearby. The second piece is an example of the  ‘Power of Women,” as a woman (sorceress) bewitches a man to death. As  Nancy A. Gutierrez mentions,“the accused woman is normally called some kind of witch […] she is accused of having tempted the man to follow her, leading him to hell” (Gutierrez)s This fear can be seen in the second painting,  as a man is succumbing to the powers of women. His weapons lay beneath him as the woman looks off from the side with pride and exposed breasts, symbolizing her wildness but also power over him through the raised torch. Again an animal is in the piece to show the animalistic side of women, with the horse looking dead ahead with anger or a sense of wildness almost as a symbol of the sorceress being an untamed force. 


Images:  Hans Baldung Grien. “Witches Sabbath.” (1510): British Museum, Art Museum Image Gallery. Tue. 25 Apr. 2012.

and “Sleeping Groom And A Sorceress (Bewitched Groom).” (1544): British Museum, Art Museum Image Gallery. Tue. 25 Apr. 2012.

Nurse, Julia. “She-Devils, Harlots And Harridans In Northern Renaissance Prints.” History Today 48.7 (1998): 41-48.

Gutierrez, Nancy A. “Philomela Strikes Back: Adultery And Mutilation As Female Self-Assertion.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 16.3-4 (1989): 429-443.



About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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