The National Gallery — Level 2, 1600-1700: Salvator Rosa: Witches at their Incantations

Between the great religious and classical Italian Baroque works of Mattia Preti, Carlo Dolci, and Luca Giordano is Salvator Rosa. It is dark, blasted, full of nightmarish, skeletal creatures. It centres on the swollen, stretched and broken neck of a hanged man drooping from the bones of a destroyed tree. Women in pairs and trios, many naked and ravaged by age pull corpses from coffins, grind bones into brew, one pulls a baby from the carapace of a monster; a knight in silver armour and a bearded man with his unsheathed sword prepare the blade. For what? Who else will die after this rite is finished? The light gutters in a scrap of blue on the horizon, burning red the torn darkness. For a painter primarily of typical Baroque themes, Witches at their Incantations is a disturbing canvas, more so because he returned to the subject more than once.

I thought it deserves its own post, because it’s so horrific, because it’s so singular. It is a work of villainy and wickedness, not of the witches, rather of the artist and the European world of the 17th century. It debases women, age, unchristian lives, judges, yet cannot see itself as the the one who in fact is walking in darkness, who brings nightmares into the world. Part of me, the young me who was all about cool Satanic imagery loves this painting for all its Metal-ness. It’s a Black Sabbath album cover, or Slayer, proper Heavy Metal territory, screaming vocals and trashing noise to get kicked out of home by. I still love it for that, and any of the detailed photos would make most excellent album art. A more recent version of me sees this as when women were being pushed from European public life, when colonialism and the philosophy of white, European supremacy was greedily consuming the world: it’s a seductive painting of hate. Some may see traces of Goya in this, but there is no comparison. I don’t think Rosa’s rebellious or satirical streak extends so far as to make the kind of social commentary Goya did, or we might today pull from such a painting. Look at Los caprichos or Los desastres de la guerra or Goya’s late Pinturas negras series. He was painting from the other side, judging the history and morality of Europe.