Three Historical Images of the Witches’ Sabbath

Artists depicted the Witches’ Sabbath, a meeting of witches to convene with Lucifer, summon spirits, cast spells, sacrifice children, have sex, commit host desecration, and fly. Below are three historical images of the Witches’ Sabbath by Goya, Spranger, and Isaac.


Highlights

  • Belief in witches grew in the early-modern period
  • The notion of the Witches’ Sabbath grew out of the French tradition
  • Francisco Goya, Bartholomeus Spranger, and Jaspar Isaac depicted the Witches’ Sabbath in their art

Compared to the earlier medieval period, the fear of witches across Europe and her colonies grew in intensity during the early-modern period. This fear was fueled by the combination of factors including anti-Semitism, misogyny, and anxiety within Christianity. This anxiety was fueled by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation at the heart of the European Wars of Religion. During this period, upwards of 40,000 people were executed for witchcraft within both the Protestant and Catholic worlds. Within the Anglo-American tradition, the two most famous witch hunts are the North Berwick Witch Trials (1590-1592) in Scotland, and the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693) in Massachusetts.

An interesting side-note about the North Berwick Trials – James VI of Scotland directly questioned accused witches of their actions designed to kill him and his wife Princess Anne of Denmark. James’ experiences during the trials spurred him to write and publish Dæmonologie in 1599. Dæmonologie is a political and theological treatise where James uses socratic dialogue to explore the dangers of necromancy, and explain why the state and not the church should investigate claims of witchcraft.

Witches' Sabbath
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” Exodus 22:18, King James Bible, 1611.

Interestingly, most witch trials ended with the exoneration of the accused. However, this was only after the accused was questioned, tortured, shaved of body hair, and humiliated by state or Church authorities. The trauma of the investigation was life-lasting for the accused, not to mention the constant suspicion and doubt lingering in the minds of their neighbors, families, church members, and employers.

Witches’ Sabbath

The notion of the Witches’ Sabbath emerged within the French tradition of witchcraft and the occult. Witches and wizards allegedly met as a group to convene with Lucifer, summon spirits, cast spells, sacrifice children, have sex, commit host desecration, and fly on brooms and animals.

Read about the origins of the myth of Madoc and Welsh Indians

The term “sabbath” suggests that the belief in and hatred of witches was influenced by anti-Semitism. Jews traditional used the word “sabbath” as the name of their day of rest and religious observance. A lingering anti-Semitic belief found in medieval and early-modern Europe claimed that Jews ritually murdered Christian children (blood libel) and participated in host desecration. By using the term “Witches’ Sabbath” and linking the traditional atrocities of child murder and host desecration, early-modern Christians tapped into an existing undercurrent of anti-Semitism. However, the decision to use the word “sabbath” may have derived from persecution of the heretical Waldensian religious group in France and Spain in the Middle Ages. Church inquisitors described Waldensian meetings and worship as “sabbaths.” Although, perhaps the Inquisitors used the term sabbath for the Waldensians due to their anti-Semitism.

Around 1800, the notion of the Witches’ Sabbath spread across the West. While once only used within a French context, the Witches’ Sabbath or Black Sabbath/Black Mass became widely associated with all witches and devil worship.

Francisco Goya

The Spanish artist Francisco Goya painted one of the most recognizable depictions of the witches’ sabbath. The scene below is from The Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) from his Black Paintings. The Black Paintings are a series of murals Goya painted on the interior walls of his rented house while he was in his 70s. The Witches’s Sabbath is a critique of the re-establishment of the Spanish monarchy and the influence of the Church in Spain during the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

Witches' Sabbath
Francisco Goya, The Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat), 1823.

Early-Modern Depictions of the Witches’ Sabbath

During the early-modern period, most Europeans did not use the term “Witches’ Sabbath” outside of the French tradition. It is curious why the French used the term for hundreds of years while their European neighbors did not. Perhaps the link to the Waldensians in southern France was an influence, or perhaps a particular strain of French religious or anti-Semitic thought. Or, it might have been a quirk in the development of the French lexicon.

Bartholomeus Spranger

The Flemish artist Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611) created the Description de l’assemblée des sorciers qu’on appelle sabbat, or Description of the Assembly of Witches called a Sabbath around 1610.1

Witches' Sabbath
Bartholomeus Spranger, “Description of the Assembly of Witches called a Sabbath,” ca. 1610. Wellcome Library.2

In this 1610 print, Satan sits on his throne as while witches and wizards dance around him with uncomfortably contorted bodies. To the right, babies are cooked in a cauldron and on the left witches and devils feast on baby flesh. Witches fly on a goat and a broom stick on the top right, while others dance with devils around a tree on the top left. The moon is a waning crescent symbolizing death.

In the image, the poor and the rich, man and woman, adult and child are all participants in Sabbath. This highlights and strengthens the fear that anyone could be a witch who could use their magic against you.


Jaspar Isaac

The French printmaker Jaspar Isaac (1584-1654) produced the Abomination des Sorciers or Abomination of the Witches in 1610.

Witches' Sabbath
Jaspar Isaac, “Abomination des Sorciers,” 1610. From the Hennin Collection of the National Library of France.

The 1610 print shows a witches’ sabbath complete with spell casting, animal familiars, murder, conjured spirits, and illicit sex. Below is a loose translation of the text. Please note, my French is terrible.

Abomination Des Sorciers

Est il rien qui soit plus damnable
Ny plus digne du feu d’enfer
Que cette engeance abominable
Des ministres de Lucifer.
Ils tirent de leurs noirs mysteres
L’horreur, la hayne le debat,
Et font de sanglans caracteres
Dans leur execrable Sabat.
Cest la que ces maudites ames
Se vont preparer leur tourment
Et qu’elles attisent les flammes
Qui bruslent eternellem

Abomination of the Witches

Is there anything more damnable
More worthy of hellfire
Than this abominable mob
The ministers of Lucifer
They derive their dark mysteries
The horror, the hate, the arguing
And make bloody characters
In their atrocious Sabbath
This is where these damned souls
Prepare themselves for their torment
And they fan the flames
That burn them forever3


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  1. Attributed to Bartholomeus Spranger ca. 1610 by George Harrap in the early 20th century. The original print is no longer extant and copies exist from the 1700s, but, none of these copies attribute Spranger.
  2. Attributed to Bartholomeus Spranger ca. 1610 by George Harrap in the early 20th century. The original print is no longer extant and copies exist from the 1700s, but, none of these copies attribute Spranger.
  3. I took some liberties with my clumsy translation to make the text sound more “authentic” in English

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