'Geschichte einer vom Teufel besessenen Frau' ("Story of a Woman Possessed by the Devil", 1654).

Elias Wellhöfer was a 17th-century German woodcut engraver, who made several engravings depicting the events of the day. Some of his graphic reports about witch hunts use sequentially illustrated narratives and can be interpreted as prototypical text comics, with descriptions underneath the images. Together with Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Jeremias Gath, Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Holbein the YoungerBartholomäus Käppeler, Caspar Krebs, Georg Kress, Hans Rogel the Elder, Hans Rogel the YoungerErhard Schön, Johann Schubert, Hans Schultes the Elder and Lucas Schultes, Elias Wellhöfer is one of the earliest German prototypical comic artists who left us with a signature.

Life and work
Not much is known about Elias Wellhöfer's life. From what can be gathered from his woodcut prints, he flourished between 1642 and 1681. He lived in the city of Augsburg, nowadays located in Bayern, Germany, but back then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Wellhöfer was married to the daughter of Catholic printer Andreas Aperger. Wellhöfer made several woodcuts based on recent events, a forerunner of today's newspapers. In the 16th, 17th and 18th century these so-called 'Geschichtsblätter' ("Pages about Events") were very popular. They portrayed battles, massacres, public executions, natural disasters and other atrocities. Wellhöfer, for instance, devoted woodcuts to a fire in the town Passau, Bayern (1662), and a landslide in the city Salzburg (1669). Visualizations of festive city visits by royals and noblemen, royal marriages and state funerals were equally popular. Wellhöfer depicted the deaths and royal funerals of Ferdinand III of the Holy Roman Empire (1657), empress Margaretha (1673) and empress Claudia Felicitas (1676). In 1680, he visualized a sermon by Marco d'Aviano at the Fronhof in Augsburg. Priest Marco was famous for allegedly healing a nun who was bedridden for 13 years. This motivated emperor Leopold I of the Holy Roman Empire to summon him to Augsburg, since his wife had been unable to give him a male heir. Marco remained the emperor's close adviser until his death.

From 1657 on, Wellhöfer printed his broadsheets at the same address of his father-in-law, Andreas Aperger, namely the Church of Our Lady. In Germany, Wellhöfer was just one of several artists who made such drawings. Other creators were, for instance, Johannes van den AveeleJeremias Gath, Frans Hogenberg, Romeyn de Hooghe, Bartholomäus Käppeler, Caspar Krebs, Georg Kress, Hans Rogel the Elder, Hans Rogel the YoungerDer Prager Meister von 1609Erhard SchönJohann SchubertHans Schultes the Elder and Lucas Schultes. Like most art from that era, the historical accuracy of these graphic "news reports" should be taken with a grain of salt. No eyewitnesses were consulted and all information was based on descriptions from messengers, travelers or hearsay. Unavoidably, anecdotes were sensationalized and used for propaganda purposes. The printers couldn't print opinions that could get them in trouble with the authorities. Audiences wanted to be awed as well. As a result, huge public festivities were made more bombastic, and scenes of death and despair were heavily dramatized. The prints were distributed all over Europe. Once the events became old news, the drawings were bundled and compiled into collectable picture albums.

Witch trials
Wellhöfer devoted at least four woodcuts to local witch trials. At the time, many people in Europe still believed witchcraft was real. Local eccentrics and loners were often stigmatized and accused of putting evil spells on fellow citizens. They were then put on trial, which usually ended in their gruesome torture and execution. Particularly during the 16th, 17th and 18th century, witch hunts grew to disturbing proportions. Many people were arrested, tortured into confession and then drowned, burned at the stake or hung at the gallows. Some religious fanatics devoted their careers to being "witch hunters". As a devout Catholic, it is understandable that Wellhöfer was very interested in these witch trials. While we can never tell for sure whether he believed in witchcraft, it was a sensational topic that people were willing to read about, and pay for.

For comic historians, Wellhöfer's witch trial woodcuts are interesting, since some make use of narrative sequences, told in panel form. Each one shows what the so-called "witch" did wrong, how she was put on trial and how she was "brought to justice" on the scaffold. The text underneath the images provides all the background information, presented as a written narrative. A summarization at the end of the page explains what can be seen on each individual image. To help the readers, Wellhöfer gives each individual scene a separate alphabetic letter.

'Verurteilung und Hinrichtung eines Zauberers' ("Sentence and Execution of a Wizard", 1666).

Geschichte einer vom Teufel besessenen Frau
In 'Geschichte einer vom Teufel besessenen Frau' ("Story of a Woman Possessed by the Devil", 1654), Wellhöfer visualizes an alleged account of a woman who was possessed by the Devil. The story is told in 15 panels, comparable to a modern-day comic strip. As the prologue describes, the event took place in his home city Augsburg. In the first panel, we see the woman being seduced by the Devil. He appears in the guise of a nobleman, though the feathers on his hat are actually his horns. In the next panels, the woman has gone mad. Various exorcists are brought in to "drive Satan out of her body." Yet despite all their prayers, candle burning and "miracle cures", the woman cannot be saved. In the eleventh panel, she confesses her "crime". As depicted in a visualized description above her head, she flew in the air on a broomstick with Satan as her guide. During her explanation, the Devil is also present in the room. The final three panels are devoted to the woman's trial and her execution. She is decapitated and then burned at the stake.

Sentence and Execution of a Wizard
With 'Verurteilung und Hinrichtung eines Zauberers' ("Sentence and Execution of a Wizard", 1666), Wellhöfer offers audiences a rare case of a man being accused of witchcraft. The event took place in Munich on 9 January 1666. A man named Simon Altsee, born in Rodenbuch am Delberg, meets the Devil in the first panel. In the second image, he is present at a witches' sabbat and witnesses Satan seducing women. Since he "sold his soul" to the Prince of Darkness, Simon is able to cast magic spells. In the third panel, he causes a storm which damages the harvest. In the next image, he summons demons and bad weather from a secluded spot in nature. Simon is arrested and tortured with hot pliers in the fifth image. His execution is seen in the final panel. The "magician" has his hands cut off and is strangled afterwards.

'Der Prozess gegen Anna Schwaynhofer aus Augsburg wegen Gotteslästerung' ("The Blasphemy Trial Against Anna Schwaynhofer", 1666).

The Trial Against Anna Schwaynhofer
Wellhöfer's 'Der Prozess gegen Anna Schwaynhofer aus Augsburg wegen Gotteslästerung' ("The Blasphemy Trial Against Anna Schwaynhofer", 1666) visualizes a trial, held on 15 April 1666 in Augsburg. A woman named Anna Schwaynhofer was accused of blasphemy. In three panels we see how she "confesses" having rejected the Holy Trinity, is brought to the scaffold and then decapitated and burned at the stake. The two phases of her execution are depicted in one and the same panel.

Witch Trial in Augsburg
In Wellhöfer's 'Hexenprozess in Augsburg' ("Witch Trial in Augsburg", 1669), we see how Anna Eberlehrin, a midwife from Augsburg, "confessed" that the Devil appeared to her in the guise of a nobleman. She sold her soul to him, rejected the Holy Trinity, and was invited to a witches' Sabbath. The second panel depicts three scenes at once. First we see her fly through the sky on a broomstick, near the letter B. Then she dances with other witches during a Sabbath, underneath a backwards written letter C. To the right of the same panel, where a letter D is indicated, Anna is seated at a table. The Devil tells her to poison her brother, who is shown enjoying a glass. The text explains that he didn't die, but only had a headache afterwards. Five other people "poisoned" by Anna, among them four children, weren't so lucky. Her spells also caused a storm in Günzburg, made cattle sick and several women infertile. Anna also kidnapped two children and brought them to a witches' Sabbath.

In the fifth panel, accompanied by the letter E, Anna is put on trial, while she confesses her crimes in the next. Her anecdote about flying on a broomstick is visualized above her head. This seals her fate. In the seventh panel she is brought to the scaffold. However, she is given slight "mercy". The executioners "only" torture her with hot pliers for a while, before she is decapitated. Her remains are then burned at the stake. The eighth panel shows the two phases of her execution within one and the same image.

'Hexenprozess in Augsburg' ("Witch Trial in Augsburg", 1669).

Recycling imagery
A notable aspect about Wellhöfer's woodcuts is that he often recycled the same images. For instance, he depicted the death of both the Holy Roman Emperor, the Empress and other important people, but it is always the same bed, surrounded by the same mourners. In the same way, he frequently reused imagery from 'Geschichte einer vom Teufel besessenen Frau' (1654), 'Der Prozess gegen Anna Schwaynhofer' (1666) and 'Hexenprozess in Augsburg' (1669). The scenes of the Devil's seduction, the trial and the execution are almost completely the same. He didn't change anything about the portrayed people's physical look either. Only tiny details were altered to fit the current narrative. In the fifth panel of 'Hexenprozess in Augsburg', for instance, Wellhöfer cut out another woman sitting next to Anna Eberlehrin. Since Anna is the focus, he didn't need another female character present in the courtroom. However, he erased her rather clumsily: the lower half of her body is still visible.

In the same way, the scene from 'Verurteilung und Hinrichtung einers Zauberers' where the so-called "wizard" is present at a witches' Sabbath, was reused for 'Hexenprozess in Augsburg'. But since the first story is about a wizard and the second about a witch, Wellhöfer had to change a few things. Rather than redesign the characters, he simply altered the descriptions. In the original image, the wizard is seated at a table, where he witnesses the Devil caressing a woman. In the reused image, the woman is now reinterpreted as the "witch" Anna, caressed by the Devil, while the former wizard is recast as her poisoned victim.

'Begräbnis des Kaisers Ferdinand III. in Wien' (1657).

In hindsight, it is understandable that Wellhöfer sometimes recycled imagery. Woodcutting is a time-consuming process. Since the real-life events depicted in his woodcuts were hot from the press, the drawings had to be released quickly, while people were still talking about them. To save time, he could easily reprint several panels. Most of the witchcraft reports followed the same pattern anyway. The general public had no clue what the real-life people looked like. His recurring characters are archetypes for a witch, judge, executioner or peasant. And since only one print would be in circulation for only a few months anyhow, barely anybody would notice his rehashing methods. All he had to do was alter the names and the descriptions. But it does prove why Wellhöfer's visual accounts cannot be trusted as actual eyewitness reports. In that sense, one can even make a further comparison with a modern-day comic strip, since he always reused the same characters, dressed in similar outfits.

'Begräbnis der Kaiserin Margarethe in Wien' (1673), recycling imagery from Ferdinand III's funeral.

Elias Wellhöfer at zeno.org

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