DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

The Four Witches

Engraving, 190 x 131 mm
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

This Engraving is an example of the ambiguous meaning of those Dürer's works that combine the heathen and classical with the Renaissance ideals of thought. In a small confined space; four female nudes are standing together conspiratorially. The floor beneath their feet has steps at different levels. The wall opens up to the left, and the Devil in the shape of a horned monster is peering out. The door opening to the right is shown by the skull and bones lying on the floor to be the gateway to Death. The group of women, which is derived formally from a classical marble group of the Three Graces, have been interpreted in different ways, amongst others as the three goddesses who judged Paris together with the goddess of Discord, or as four witches.

This is the only one of Dürer's engravings before 1503 bearing a date. For this reason it has been presumed to denote an actual event. The devil lurking in the background and the skull and bone on the floor preclude the suggestion that the Three Graces or Discord and the Three Fates are pictured in this engraving. It seems more likely that the girl wearing the wreath is being initiated by three matrons or witches. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII had issued his encyclical Summis Desiderantes, which described witchcraft in vivid terms, particularly the existence of devils taking the shape of women. Men who had intercourse with these she-devils became afflicted with sickness, pains and impotence. In 1486 in Cologne, Jacob Sprenger had published his vicious book Malleus maleficarum (Hammer for witches), a guide for witch-hunters; women in particular, including midwives and even nuns, were termed susceptible to devilish deeds. This book went through at least sixteen editions in Germany alone, eleven in France and six in England, the last in 1669. Dürer's prints may well be connected with one of these editions.

The letters "OGH" have still not found a satisfactory explanation. They have been variously interpreted to mean "Oh Gott hüte" (Oh God Forbid), "Obsidium Generis Humani" (Ambush against the human race) or Ordo Graciarum Horarumque" (Order of the Graces and Hours). The fruit is a pomegranate, a symbol of fertility.