Happy Halloween, art lovers! Read on if you dare…That dusky Autumn season is truly upon us. Nights are drawing in sooner, mornings begin with a crisp chill and the air just feels fresher. It can mean only one thing: Halloween is coming!
Whether you’re an avid fear-fan, or prefer not to partake in the spooky goings-on on October 31st, you simply can’t avoid the Halloween aesthetic that creeps in this time of year. But where did it all come from? What was that initial impetus that developed into the same imagery that saturates our shops, window displays and televisions this time of year? What was that initial impetus that developed into the same imagery that saturates our shops, window displays and televisions this time of year?
Of course there is an abundance of folk lore, cautionary tales and fictional horror stories from the likes of Stephen King, but initial imagery of the creatures we associate with Halloween today have been depicted by artists since as early as the 1500s, if not earlier. Before television, radio or social media existed, news and ideas were widely spread through art as much of the population were illiterate.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio comes to mind immediately. The old master, recognised for his skilful chiaroscuro technique in the dramatic and often violent scenes he painted, was one of the first to begin fully realising scenes from the Bible with a more sophisticated realism than many artists before him. These pieces, often painted quickly from live models, presented an incredible amount of detail which at the time struck fear into viewers seeing realistic depictions of demons and other evil supernatural beings for the first time. Naturally, artists succeeding Caravaggio incorporated their own understanding of demonic entities and depicted them slightly differently. From Caravaggio and moving through the years, however, the iconic scene of a demonic figure pursuing the protagonist, usually in a bedroom, can still be seen in modern day references to the devil - Did someone say Paranormal Activity?
Another freaky favourite for Halloween is, of course, the witch. Initially in western culture, the witch was briefly depicted as a beautiful temptress similar to that of a siren from Egyptian and Greek mythology. The stories of the lusty alluring woman, ‘Circe’, who guided seamen to their deaths with her magical chants is thought to be somewhat of a bridge between the idea of sirens and what came to be the western European understanding of witches.
It’s thought that the earliest portrayal of the stereotypical ‘hag’ witch was created by Albrecht Dürer around 1500. Dürer was an oil painter, specialising in portraits and self portraits and typically revered as highly as da Vinci and Raphael. In later years, he moved to wood engravings and was commissioned by many churches, before settling with creating prints of his engravings. Fascinatingly, this is thought to be the first instance in European history that an artist creates prints of the same work. Albrecht, a devout Catholic in a time of significant religious conflict in Europe, created an image of a muscular yet old woman riding backwards on a bastardised goat with demonic details. The woman is accompanied by four putti, one of which carries an alchemist’s pot. Art historians argue that this one print could be the beginning of the now conventional imagery of the hag witch, and her cauldron.
Naturally, over time the imagery both influenced culture and evolved from cultural understanding of witches. In the early 1600s, telltale signs of a witch was a mole or mark which made its way into later representations of ‘the witch’. In 1939, The Wizard of Oz depicted The Wicked Witch of The East’s legs in striped stockings underneath Dorothy’s house. This imagery has trickled down into modern imagery, where the child-friendly witch often dons striped stockings and a pointed hat. The Wicked Witch of The West’s iconic green deformed face and Dorothy’s shock at meeting the Good Witch of The North are, again, derived from that famous c.1500 Dürer print.
“You’re not a witch. Witches are old and ugly.” - Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz
Finally, it’s not Halloween unless we discuss Death himself - The Grim Reaper. The idea of the Grim Reaper originated in Europe in the 14th century. Art historians often credit the Black Death following the Plague for the imagery we associate today with the Grim Reaper. Throughout many cultures, the representation of death is some kind of skeletal creature, most likely because of its literal representation of human decay. In fact, this was also a common theme in European imagery of Death, as seen in works like “An Allegory of Death” by Frans Francken the Younger c.1600, ‘Death’ is depicted as a skeleton often approaching the old and dishevelled. However, many artists from the 1500s began depicting Death in shadowy billowing cloaks and wielding a scythe. It’s thought by historians that the introduction of the scythe, a farming tool of that era, came from the idea of Death taking so many souls from the earth at once during the Black Death. Death’s work was compared to that of a farmer, reaping a large yield of souls from the earth as farmers did their crops, which is likely when ‘Reaper’ was coined.
Interestingly, the imagery surrounding the Grim Reaper seems almost entirely unchanged over time, where other traditional Halloween ghouls have evolved through the hands of many artists. In the modern day, where witches can be depicted as good or bad, beautiful or ugly, the Grim Reaper remains unquestionably stable. The iconic ensemble has certainly inspired modern day art and cinema; take Scream’s Ghostface or Harry Potter’s Voldemort, although reference to the actual Reaper himself remains unchanged.
It’s easy to forget just how embedded art is in our everyday lives - even if you don’t necessarily follow the latest big names and trends. So this Halloween, while you’re out trick or treating or watching your favourite frightful film, spare a thought for just how incredible it is that this evening brings us origins dating back centuries. Happy Halloween!
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