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Core Record

Title Witches' Sabbath
Collection Victoria and Albert Museum
Artist Francken, Frans, II) (Flemish painter, 1581–1642)
Date 1606 (dated)
Signed yes

This painting is a typical example of Frans Francken's representation of witchcraft that he produced in series. The iconography reflects the traditional conception of witches, oscillating between beauty and horror, sensuality and lust. The witches' Sabbath takes place at night, appropriate to the illicit character of their activity, and the whole scene gives the impression of chaos, of suffering but also of regeneration, alluding to the magical power of the witches.

Frans Francken the Younger was the most famous of a family of artists. He was likely trained by his father Frans Francken the Elder and perhaps also in Paris by his uncle Hieronymus I. In 1605, he was a member of the Antwerp Guild of St Luke. He rapidly had a large studio that produced many replicas of his extensive output. He was the inventor of the 'monkey kitchen' compositions, a genre that was subsequently widely disseminated by David Teniers (1610-1690), and he was renowned for his innovative imagination.

Current Accession Number DYCE.3
Inscription front lr (on tablecloth) 'DI FF IN 1606'
Subject interior; figure; still life (skulls)
Measurements 46.6 x 35.2 cm
Material tempera on panel (hardwood {oak})
Acquisition Details Bequeathed by Rev. Alexander Dyce 1869.
Publications C.M. Kauffmann, Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, I. Before 1800, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, p. 115-16, cat. no. 128.; Richard van Dülmen, Hexenwelten : Magie und Imagination vom 16.-20. Jahrhundert, Frankfurt, 1987; Ursula Härting, Frans Francken II, Freren, 1989, pl. 6, p. 46 - cat. 405, p. 360.

The size includes the frame. This painting is an interesting example of the representation of witchcraft during the early seventeenth century. This kind of imagery was fairly rare but not unknown. Frans Francken the Younger executed several paintings of the subject matter, such as the two Witchcrafts in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Inv. No. 1070 and 1074), and a Witches' Sabbath in the Bayerische Staatgemäldesammlungen, Munich (Inv. No. 1987). He also made a series of drawings on the same subject such as the Homage to the Devil, Albertina, Vienna.

Following iconographic tradition, this painting is structured on a series of dualities: beauty and ugliness, light and darkness, reality and surreal, etc. The beauty of the two young women in the foreground and the ugliness of the figures nearby may allude to the dual origin of the witches, cast upon the Antique prototype figure of Medusa who exemplifies beauty transformed into horror. And yet these beautiful figures are fully dressed whereas the ugly ones are paradoxically completely naked in the background. The many winged creatures may recall the medieval conception of witches who were intended as flying nocturnal figure for their nocturnal practice and their ability to see in the dark (literally and figuratively). These little winged monsters, reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516), also evoke the presence of evil as tradition has it that the witches sought the infinite by eventually coupling with Lucifer-Satan, the purpose of which was the acquisition of knowledge.

Frans Francken the Younger's iconographic representation of witchcraft gave the impression that he knew more about it than the popular culture allowed although the reason for this remains unclear. This subject matter however provided the artist's extremely innovative imagery with new motives to develop.

Dyce's main interest was in literary subjects, and this is reflected in many of the paintings he bequeathed to the V&A.

Rights Owner © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Author Ana Debenedetti



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