Frans Francken II painted five or six witchcraft scenes at the start of the 17th century. Copies and variations of his popular themes were made by his workshop, where his elder brother, our Hieronymus II, was also active.
Our painting refers to a painting that Frans II painted circa 1610; it is part of the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. At least seven more of these ‘copies’ are known; ours and the ones from the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and from the Narodni Galerie in Prague are attributed to Hieronymus II.
In our eccentric kitchen scene witches are preparing a brew holding the most incredible ingredients. Three witches are praying to the devil, others get ready to undress and fly off on their broom.
About Hieronymus Francken II
Antwerp 1578 – 1623 Antwerp
Painter of genre scenes, biblical scenes and picture galleries, also of some still lifes and portraits.
Son of Frans Francken I (1542 – 1616). Frans I had many children. Three years after his death six were still alive, four men who were all four painters, and two women.
Hieronymus the Younger studied painting with his father until 1605 and then with his uncle Ambrosius I (1544/45 – 1618). He joined the Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke in his birthplace Antwerp in 1607.
Hiëronymus II remained unmarried. His early works and those of his young brother Frans II ((1581 – 1642) are often confounded. Hieronymus II must have worked in the studio of Frans II. At their father’s death in 1616 he carried on his workshop. He died seven years later.
The Francken-family counted many painters divided over five generations:
- none of the paintings of Nicolas Francken (circa 1510/20 – 1596) have survived;
- three of his sons were painters: Hieronymus I, Frans I and Ambrosius I;
- four sons of Frans I also became painters: Thomas, our Hieronymus II, Frans II (the best-known member of the family) and Ambrosius II;
- three sons of Frans II were painters: Frans III, Hieronymus III and Ambrosius III;
- finally for Constantyn Francken, son of our Hieronymus III, his father died too young to give him lessons in painting.
About early 17th century Flemish paintings with witches
Between 1580 and 1630 witches were being massively hunted after all over Europe: these women and men were suspected of using malefic, supernatural powers to harm or to bring prosperity to any living creature.
In 1565 Hieronymus Cock published two important engravings of ‘St James and the Wizard’ after designs by Pieter Brueghel the Elder which hold already many visual elements that one still associates with witches. One finds them also in our painting:
- witches flying on a broom leaving the house through the fireplace and the chimney;
- the large cooking pot;
- the devil’s circle;
- the ‘hand of glory’: the (left) hand of a man who died on the gallows, lighted as a candle stick;
- the Hieronymus Bosch-like weird animals, monsters and toads;
- strange ‘Kabbalistic’ texts and magic books.
In Antwerp the peak of prosecutions of witches was already reached in the last quarter of the 16th century, as well under Catholic as under Calvinist (1577 – 1585) city councils. Several male and female witches were brought to court, but only one was sentenced to death. Clara Goessen, a woman born in Strasbourg, was first strangled and then burned in August 1603. The following year, in 1604, Frans Francken II (active all his life in his native Antwerp, just as his brother Hieronymus II) painted his first witchcraft scene (today in a private collection in Basel). It was only the next year, in 1605, that he joined the Painter’s Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp as a Master.
Frans Francken II painted at least five important witchcraft scenes, all early in his career:
- the 1604 one from Basel;
- the 1606 one from the Victoria and Albert Museum of London;
- the 1607 one from the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna
- the two undated paintings, circa 1610, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna and the Alte Pinakothek from Munich.
A sixth composition, unsigned, but also given to Frans II, remained unsold at Christie’s Amsterdam, 20/11/13.
Based on these first five paintings Frans’ II workshop, where Hieronymus Francken II and several assistants were active, produced at least 19 paintings with variations on these themes, especially of those two undated paintings from circa 1610: from the Vienna painting at least eight versions and from the Munich one at least seven.
Frans Francken II also made at least also three drawings of this subject.
About our painting
Our painting copies the composition of the undated witches kitchen painted circa 1610 by Frans Francken II, today at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. At least eight studio versions of this original are known, three of them are attributed to Hieronymus Francken II: our painting and the versions from the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the Narodni Galerie in Prague.
Francken used several elements in our painting based upon the confessions made by Clara Goessen:
- she had said that she used a skull (on the table at the centre of our painting) to call her devil Roelandt;
- she had made love with her devil on the Battle Field in Nieuwpoort (1600); the chopped off soldiers’ head with a helmet (in the right foreground) refers to the Battle.
The two rich ladies at right in our composition are ready to undress. Behind them in the right corner an old witch is applying on ointment made of flies on the back of a naked young witch. Thanks to this lotion she will be able to fly. Through the window at left two more witches, a man and a woman, are ready to take off on a broom. Two naked witches fly from the fireplace through the chimney. Attached to the fireplace is a drawing with a ‘hand of glory’ and hearts, and next to it, drawn onto the wooden beam, the Star of David.
In the lower left section three women are praying to the devil, who appears on a tripod. Next to him other witches are cooking with strange ingredients.
The centre of our composition holds two old witches reading in magic (cooking) books. On the draped table a skull pierced by a knife on two crossed swords, crossed bones, toads and red wax harts. At its foot the ingredients of this cooking session: snakes, skulls, bones and also a toad-like swollen winged monster pierced with an arrow, and the head of the decapitated soldier wearing his helmet. Just under the head is written ‘Toverye’, that is ‘Magic’ in the edge of a magic circle.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because not many of these exquisite early 17th century witches’ scenes remain available. Most sit in public collections and museums.