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Northern European School

Second half of the 16th Century

A Witches' Sabbath. Pen and brown ink, grey-green wash, white heightening, on grey-green paper. 27.5 x 42.5 cm.

This fantastic, surreal panorama stands in a tradition of scenes from hell and apocalyptic visions that are particularly prominent in 16th century Flemish and Dutch art. A highly evocative work, it has been attributed in the past to the French painter, sculptor and printmaker, Jean Cousin the Younger (1522 Sens – circa 1594 Paris), but his authorship no longer appears convinc­ing. The anonymous artist, who was probably from northern Europe, has given free rein to his unbridled, macabre imagination. Monstrous scenes of a terrifying nature unfold in a huge grotto lit by torches and a blazing fire where witches and wizards meet with devils. Alchemists conduct experiments and brew diabolical potions; in the left foreground naked bodies wrestle fiercely with each other in a chaotic tangle; skeletons and skulls lie scattered about; in the right foreground, a naked woman disembowels a corpse under the guidance of a sorcerer. In the centre of the composition an elegantly dressed young man with a feathered beret is beset by devils and mythical creatures, while from the top left winged monsters and apocalyptic figures surge into the infernal gathering. There is an unmistakable erotic element in this den of iniquity, where several lascivious young women move about freely and casually in groups of three – an allusion to a demonic Judgement of Paris – despite the deafening noise. The entrance to the grotto provides a view of an apocalyptic scene on the distant horizon where a city is ablaze.

The iconography of this unchecked pandemonium is so complex that it is difficult to offer a precise interpretation. The anonymous draughtsman has rendered this dramatic and imaginative scene with great accuracy and effortless mastery, but where does the mysterious master come from? Is he of French origin or does he stem from a Flemish or Dutch cultural background? While the paper, originally tinted blue, has probably become discoloured over the course of time, the depiction itself has forfeited little of its visual succinctness.

From the collection of Mathieu-Guillaume-Thérèse de Villenave (Paris, 1762–1846), sold by the Alliance des Arts, Paris, sale from 1–8 December 1842 (Lugt 61; see the descriptive catalogue by Théophile Thoré, Catalogue de dessins des grands maîtres italiens, (...) provenant du cabinet de M. Villenave, no. 509, as Jean Cousin, Le Sabbat, "Magnifique dessin à la plume, lavé bistre, de bleu et de blanc.").

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