Art is Often Magical. But, What Relationship do Magic and Art Have?

Art History

January 2, 2017

Since the beginning of human creativity, magic and art went hand in hand. Small figurines used for various rituals, the ancient drawings found in caves, or the primitive masks used for numerous celebrations, are some of the earliest examples of the use of the visual art as a form of a meeting point, a vessel of information, between the spiritual and the material realms. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead is one of the earliest examples of art made for magical purposes. Full of beautiful Egyptian paintings and hieroglyphs, the images within illustrate various magical spells which help the crossing into the underworld. The revival of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures during the Renaissance marked the time when magic was not only a popular subject of written literary works and plays but also a real entity in the culture and in the intellectual world[1]. Some of the produced paintings of this time, especially created by the master Sandro Botticelli, were even considered to hold magical and protective powers guarding the city, while other paintings invoked malevolent magic.

the great magician uses life and science as new magic work. like the way he can make people disappear
Unknown artist - Hermes Trismegistus. Image via

What is the Link Between Magic and Art?

Various authors define magic as the desire to use invisible forces to change the visible world. From the philosophical point of view, the link between art and magic displays the hidden rules of nature, investigates the visible world, and showcases the realm of dreams and desires. Displaying the very best and the worst of human nature, magic was separated into White and Black Magic[2].

At the early stage of history, the initial examples of magical art attempted to connect this world to the realm of the unknown. Considered as magical figures, shamans, prophets, or artists, created figurines, masks and paintings which helped form a dialogue between the spiritual forces denied to almost everyone but the chosen few. The long tradition of naïve and folk art is an extravagant arena of colorful images which, not only illustrates the primitive beliefs of various cultures, but also displays numerous ritualistic spells which foretell the future, serve to increase the crop of the seasons, or attempt to play with the fate of life’s events. On the other hand, visionary artists painted the connection to the world of dreams, or of the invisible forces which inspire and teach. Understanding that the role of art is to conjure a bridge between the visible and the invisible, this form of art is possibly in-between the idea of the magical art and the world of the occult, in which various gatherings and rituals attempted to create direct links to the forces of both the good and the evil.

make way for new magic work page in 2016
Left: The Master of Flémalle - The Nativity / Right: Rogier van der Weyden - Visitation. Images via

Few of the Famous Magical Paintings and Objects

Several works of art that define both museum and gallery collections are not only examples of innovations in painting and sculpture but showcase art made for magical purposes. Portraiture painting history is especially interesting since, in Renaissance Florence, portraits of traitors were often painted on walls in public places. These images were not merely ‘wanted posters’ but in, fact, visual curses, paintings that set out to injure their victims and to invoke misfortune. Celebrated paintings by Sandro Botticelli depicting Virgin Mary figure and the baby Christ, such as his Annunciation, are believed to possess magical and protective powers. Many viewed that this particular painting guarded Florence when the city was in danger. Various religious paintings, especially depictions of the Virgin Mary figure, are believed to have helped create miraculous changes and events.

Convinced that they are direct heirs to the kind of wisdom illustrated in The Book of the Dead, those Renaissance intellectuals who were interested in magic often credited their books to, presumably fictitious, figure known as Hermes Trismegistus. He was the author of the book Hermetic Corpus, a series of sacred texts that are the basis of Hermeticism. In his writings, Trismegistus defined three parts of the wisdom of the whole Universe on alchemy, astrology, and theurgy. The idea that astrology is one of the teachers in the universe reinforced the use of astrological signs as decorations on the great astronomical clocks, while in numerous religious and allegorical paintings, the world of symbols was implemented.

new magic work
Sando Botticelli - The Annunciation. Image via

Art and Magic – The Transformative Power

For many, the transformative power of art and of the artistic process are forms of magic. The repetitive rhythm of a certain action, producing almost a meditative state of the artist’s mind, is an essential element of practice for numerous artists. From such a state, authors create images that mean to represent visions of the world not comprehended with eyes. As such, the Action paintings by Jackson Pollock, linked to the spiritual sand paintings of the Indian culture, document the magical moment of the loss of control and the release of the pure creative energy. This, of course, is not the only example of the use of primitive culture in the world of art. Many artists of the 20th-century, used African primitive sculptures, and ritualistic figurines, as a source of inspiration for their innovative avant-garde works.

The turn to magic and the need for art come from the same desire to better understand the world around us. From antiquity to the present time, magic has always been an essential part of life. Even in today's secularized, science-driven society, it still maintains its position within the mysterious acts of creation - be it art, or something else.

 Editors’ Tip: The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic: An Illustrated History

The Occult, Witchcraft and Magic is packed with authoritative text and a huge and inspired selection of images, some chosen from unusual sources, including some of the best-known representations of magic and the occult from around the world spanning ancient to modern times. Illustrating the curious history of magic and the powers of the occult, witchcraft, ritual, and the imagination, the book takes us on the journey from the Middle Ages to the 20th-century. During the Middle Ages, religion, science, and magic were difficult to set apart. The Middle Ages also saw the pursuit of alchemy - the magical transformation of base materials―which led to a fascination with the occult, Freemasonry, and Rosicrucianism. The turn of the twentieth century witnessed a return to earlier magical traditions, and today, magic means many things. If the magical and the mysterious is what you wish to learn more about, then this book is a must-have.


  1. Batistini, M.,Astrology, Magic, and Alchemy in Art, Getty Publications, 2007
  2. Roob, A., Alchemy and Mysticism, Getty Publications, 2007

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Detail of the illustration from The Book of the Dead. Image via

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