Sometimes you just need to see something, and see it good. Lately I had a real hunger to see some old women raiding hell, some real crone energy being raised. The works that made my list had to have the mysterious weight of history twinned in their wild grey hair.
1. Durer’s goat rider is perhaps my favourite wild elder of all time. This liminal image is going forwards and backwards at the same time.
2. Venziano’s Witches Rout, 1520. What is even happening, and does it matter? You either climb on board or get out of the way.
3. Bruegel’s hell raider is the painting that started it all. I have written extensively about this painting as well as the Durer piece on my Patreon. Here Bruegel is heavily influenced by Bosch, representing a figure from Flemmish folklore called Dulle Griet. She raided hell, stealing treasure from demons. She was a satire of a loud, unpleasant woman but time has been kind to her. Now, we can look at these paintings as unabashed visions of female power.
4. David Teniers’ Hexenspuk which translates to “spooky witch.” I found this title on the internets and doubt its veracity. What fascinates me most is what this woman is leaving behind. As she enters hell, she looks over her shoulder. The demons seem to cower at her brandished sword, and she leaves behind a wild conflagration in the world of men. It’s not hard to imagine war, or the war of the sexes that were also known as the burning times.
5 David Ryckaert III was a contemporary of Teniers, Nothing prepared me for the weirdness of Ryckaert, from his “toothpuller” and “The fable of the satyr and the peasant family” to an old woman feeding a cat swaddled as if it were a baby in “Peasant Woman with Cat.” He is my new fascination.
6 Antwerp School, 17th century. I found this on the website of a German auction house.
7 Another from the Antwerp School of the 17th Century. Here the Flemish saying “she would even tie the Devil to her pillow” meaning one who has an obstinate fearlessness, is given literal form.
The old woman fearlessly raiding hell is visited again and again as a subject, like a scene from the Bible or Greek mythology, yet it was folkloric and peasant-based. Perhaps this reveals the last vestiges of resistance to a new way of being brought on by the shift from feudal use of land to early capitalism. These changes brought with them the final stamping out of “pagan” ways of being. Older women were most likely the last to resist these changes to common ways of life. The earlier works in this list have a nightmarish urgency, while the later are clearly tamed by repetition and reference. The rebellious women, the Dulle Griets, were merely characters in a story told at midwinter by the fire. Do you have a favourite crone-power painting? Would you add any to this list?