This painting was created by the American artist, Tompkins Harrison Matteson (c. 1813–1884), and is housed within the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It is a fitting location for a painting themed on witchcraft, as colonial Salem was the location of the most famous witch trials in the history of North America. One such witchcraft trial is depicted in Matteson’s painting, and the woman with the exposed back is the suspected witch in this scene. The crowd in the courtroom looks on at a mole, birthmark, or other skin blemish on the woman’s back, which they believe is a so-called ‘Witches’ Mark.’ King James of Scotland and England, in his Daemonologie, wrote that Satan gave witches “his mark upon some secret place of their body, which remains sore [and] unhealed until his next meeting with them, and thereafter [the mark is] ever insensible, howsoever it be nipped or pricked in any way, as is daily proved” (Daemonologie, Book 2, chapter 2). With this in mind, Inquisitors would poke and prod at these skin blemishes, and were highly suspicious of any pain tolerance or lack of sensation that they discovered.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).