A free exhibit paying tribute to Tudor England “scholar, courtier, magician” John Dee opens today at London’s Royal College of Physicians. In addition to over 40 books and Dee’s crystal ball, the display contains the Henry Gillard Glindoni painting above, which depicts Dee doing his thing for Elizabeth I.
As the Queen and others including Sir Walter Raleigh look on, Dee makes some flames come up from a small cauldron with the flair of a magic trick. Glindoni calls it “an experiment” without specifying exactly what’s going on here. But new X-ray studies of the canvas have revealed a grim element that was painted over after the work was completed, according to the Guardian:
X-ray imaging of the stately Victorian artwork has revealed that Dee was originally surrounded by human skulls before the ghoulish image was painted over, probably because it was too odd for the buyer.
The detail is important not just because it’s spooky—but because it opens up the very question the RCP exhibition is attempting to get visitors to ask. During his lifetime, the RCP points out, Dee was famous because he was a prominent expert in mathematics, astronomy, navigation, and other scholarly subjects. But since his death in 1609, his other interests have secured his place in history:
Dee has always been best known for his private study of angels and alchemy. Possibly an inspiration for Shakespeare’s sorcerer Prospero, Dee famously attempted to contact spirits and discover the philosopher’s stone. His alchemical pursuits and ‘angelic conversations’ continue to fascinate over 400 years after his death.
Exhibition curator and rare books librarian Katie Birkwood told the Guardian that she’s hoping visitors come away from the exhibit—which includes books on alchemy and astronomy filled with Dee’s notes and drawings—feeling like they can appreciate every aspect of the man who’s come to be known as “the Queen’s Conjurer”:
“He is one of Tudor England’s most interesting and enigmatic figures and we are exploring that without coming down with a view on whether he is a scholar, courtier or magician. He is all of those and more.”
“Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee” runs through July 29.
Image credit: Wellcome Library, London. Library reference no.: ICV No 51391 and Iconographic Collection 47369i. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0