Magic in Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist Art

'Hecate', WIlliam Blake (1795)
‘Hecate’, WIlliam Blake (1795)

Magic and witchcraft can be depicted as ugly and dark in art as in William Blake’s Hecate, but Pre-Raphaelite artists embrace its beauty and mysticism.

The Magic Circle, John WIlliam Waterhouse
The Magic Circle, John WIlliam Waterhouse
morgan le fey
Morgan Le Fey, Frederick Sandys
morgan le fey's skirt
Look at her skirt. Her magical symbols, I think, are Celtic in origin. If anyone has any info on them, please post a comment.
Medea, Fredrick Sandys
crystal ball, waterhouse
The Crystal Ball, John William Waterhouse
circe invidiosa, waterhouse
Circe Invidiosa, John William Waterhouse
circe offering cup to ulysses, waterhouse
Circe offering the cup to Ulysses, John William Waterhouse
Natural Magic, by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
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8 Replies to “Magic in Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist Art”

  1. I do believe it is the same model, but not the same dress. Although the effect (with the vivid, luscious red) is the same.

    I love Waterhouse, although I am not as knowledgeable about his work and models as I am, say, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

    However, I am a member of the new(ish) message board at And I encourage you to join. I’ll gladly post a message about both paintings !


  2. Yes! They do look Pictish!
    Thank you Magda! Now, I’m returning to the link you sent!
    I’m full of questions now!! How familiar would Sandys have been with Pictish symbolism? Did he already know of it? Or did he research it for his painting? Did he dabble in magick? Or folklore?

  3. Yes they are Pictish, they are found carved on Pictish Standing Stones, however they are also found on Pictish Crosses. Nobody knows what they mean, but one of the main theories is that they symbolised tribes or perhaps important people. It is a complete mystery as Pictish was never written down, but Pictish is thought to be related to Welsh due to the overlap of place names eg. Abergervenny, Aberdeen.

    1. Thank you for your comment Jacqui. It is so interesting! I’d be interested in reading more about the Picts.

  4. The symbols on the skirt of Morgaine Le Fey ( Morgaine of the Faeries) are all ancient alchemical symbols depicting the various stages of changing base metal into gold, literally and otherwise. It’s all about the stages of transformation physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Carl Jung and Jungian Analysis use the different stages of the alchemical process to describe transformation or the process of individuation on the Hero/Heroine’s journey in life. In ancient times, there were some alchemists who tried to make gold out of base metals. That did not work. Morgaine must have used them for spells, sorcery, herbal potions. She knew the ironies of life and what people had to do sometimes that were more complex than black and white, good and evil.

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