A Scene of Sorcery

Oil on canvas, H. 0.73 m; W. 0.57 m

Monogram on bottom-right: DX F.

Provenance: Private collection, France.

Dutch artist Dominicus van Wijnen was the pupil of historical painter Willem Doudyns in The Hague. He was present in Rome in the 1680s and became a member of the brotherhood of Dutch painters, Schildersbent, where he was named Ascanius (the son of Aeneas). He returned to Amsterdam before 1690, and from that time onwards all historical trace of the artist has been lost. Van Wijnen was passionate about ancient and modern literature, specialising in eccentric and often mysterious subjects.

Our painting juxtaposes real and supernatural characters in a nocturnal scene taking place on the outskirts of a village. At the left of the composition, a woman accompanies an adolescent, who seems unable to see her. She holds a book in one hand and a stick in the other. A lion, symbol of courage, stands next to her naked feet. This woman likely represents an allegory of power, thus characterising youth.

The rest of the composition contains an ensemble of elements clearly pertaining to the world of sorcery. Indeed, death and love are in question here. Evil spirits, a demon holding a mirror off to the right, and the Devil, in the form of an old woman on a billy goat that dominates the scene, all feature. A pact has seemingly been made with the Devil: the protagonist has sold his soul for eternity, in exchange for a temporary allocation of his power. The central scene represents, in all probability, the Devil himself who comes to claim the soul of the hanged man, which passes through a ring – symbol of eternity – placed above the gallows.

Other elements holding traces of sorcery are represented here: the fire in the centre of the scene, a symbol of physical, moral and mystical transmutation. Close to the fire we find a cat, servant of the underworld, as well as a sleeping baby, often victims of sorcery.

The key to the narrative probably lies in the group of figures to the right in the foreground. A young woman, seen from behind and half-dressed in fine cloth and animal skins, and the corpse of a young man, act as a repoussoir, a device often used by Van Wijnen. The face of the young woman reappears on the mirror held by the young man in armour beside her. This young woman, with a fly on her back and a snake in her hand, must incarnate the evil triggered by the fall of the man. The armour symbolises resistance, but this man cannot resist being seduced by the young woman. There is a spell being cast, for a demon is holding the mirror for him. The scene reflects a dark vision of man at the mercy of the charms of women, perceived as dangerous.

This painting constitutes a rarity that we can situate among the mythological scenes and fantastical allegories dear to Van Wijnen. We also find such themes among the works of Salvator Rosa, whose engravings were very popular during the second half of the 17th century.