Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Love Magic
  • Creator: Unknown Rhenish master, painter
  • Description:

    Painted in the second half of the fifteenth century, Love Magic is by an unknown Rhenish artist. The painting is oil and tempera on wood, and currently resides in the Museum der Bildenden Künste, in Leipzig. Though the scene was long thought to portray a female folk ritual for finding love, recent scholars suggest that Love Magic connects with late medieval beliefs concerning the power of women, magic and women’s privacy.

    This work depicts a young woman, completely nude aside from a strip of fabric and wooden pattens on her feet, as she drops water and sparks into a chest containing a large red heart. About the room float five blank, scrolling pieces of paper. They align with the heart, woman, the young man in the background, parakeet and dog. The scrolls may have been included to create an air of intrigue. To the right of the panel are the dog and parakeet, while a fire is lit in the fireplace to the left. The background of the painting has become obscured, but it is possible to make out shelving with different objects on it. Behind her, the young man has entered the doorway and stands gazing at her. Presumably it is his heart that lies in the casket and receives the streams of sparks and water, demonstrating that only the beloved can cool the flames of love.

    The painting likely refers to the Power of Women topos, the idea that women had control over men through their sexuality and could humiliate and destroy them. Witness the story of Delilah and Samson as well as the way in which Phyllis makes a fool of Aristotle. Women, moreover, were considered especially prone to enacting feminine "love magic" by which they could manipulate men's desires. This reversal of roles threatened the gendered power balance by granting women dominance.

    Changes in the late medieval period led to a new idea of privacy that had previously been unavailable to the majority of the population. Along with women's newfound domestic spaces for privacy came a rise in male voyeurism into those feminine spaces. Men were anxious about what women might be doing. A desire for privacy was seen as suspicious and secretive. It was ultimately tied to magic and mischief due to the idea that such activities were practiced in secret and alone.

    Given the broader context of the power of women, magic and women's privacy, what specific meaning/s did the painting covey to viewers? In recent years Dechant has argued that the scene with its many objects is intended to be ambiguous. In his view it presents the viewer with a fascinating mystery involving women's sexuality rather than a puzzle to be decoded. Wolfthal underlines the artist's naturalism in the representation of flowers, sparks and water droplets, suggesting that the painting captures a powerful erotic vision by including many realistic details.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Love Charms Magic Nude in Art Power of Women Topos Privacy Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1470
  • Related Work: Hans Memling, Bathsheba at Her Bath, ca. 1480, Netherlands, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.
    After van Eyck, Woman at Her Toilet, ca. 1500, Netherlands, Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University.
    Tristan and Iseut drinking the love potion, 15th century, BnF, manuscrit Français 112, fol. 239r.
    Alexander the Great's mother sleeping with a dragon, while her husband observes, ca. 1468-1475, Low Countries, British Library, Burney MS 169, fol. 14r.
    Melusine in her bath, spied upon by her husband Raymondin, ca. 1490, Flanders, BnF, Ms. Francais 24383, fol. 19.
  • Current Location: Leipzig, Germany, Museum der bildenden Künste, inv. no. 509
  • Original Location: Vicinity of Cologne
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood panel ; Oil paints
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 24/18/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Broedel, Hans. "Witchcraft as an Expression of Female Sexuality." In The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief. Manchester University Press, 2013. Pages 167-188.

    Dechant, D. Lyle. "Fascinated by Fascination: Female Privacy and the Leipzig 'Love Magic' Panel." Visions of Enchantment: Occultism, Magic and Visual Culture: Select Papers Form the University of Cambridge Conference. Edited by Daniel Zamani and Judith Noble. Fulgur Press, 2019. Pages 39-49.

    Lorenzi, Lorenzo. "The Daughter of Venus: The Image of the Witch in the Fifteenth Century." In Witches: Exploring the Iconography of the Sorceress and Enchantress. Centro Di Della Edifimi Srl, 2005.

    Nenno, Nancy P. "Between Magic and Medicine: Medieval Images of the Woman Healer." Women Healers and Physicians: Climbing a Long Hill. Edited by Lillian R. Furst. University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Pages 43-63.

    Warburton, Greg. "Gender, Supernatural Power, Agency and the Metamorphoses of the Familiar in Early Modern Pamphlet Accounts of English Witchcraft." Parergon 20, no. 2 (2003): 95-118.

    Wolfthal, Diane. "From Venus to Witches: The Female Nude in Northern Europe." The Renaissance Nude. Edited by Thomas Kren with Jill Burke and Stephen J. Campbell. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018. Pages 81-91.