The Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford 

By Juliette Hampton.

“O Astaroth, the Prince of Meridialis, I conjure you with all those who are your company who have power over love” begins the prayer to Astaroth, the treasurer of Hell. Like many other demonic invocations of the medieval ages, this particular prayer was said in order to provoke mutual love. This illustrates the whole concept of the Spellbound exhibition: eight centuries of magical thinking.

Magical thinking emerges from the certainty that our thoughts and desires can have an impact on the external world. For example, at the entrance of the exhibition, visitors are dared to walk underneath a ladder leaning against the wall. We were not many to do so, and the few brave ones who did it felt a strange sensation of dread right afterwards. This shows how magical thinking, that we often associate with childishness and the Dark Ages still has an impact on the way we think.

This extremely rich exhibition, that will be on until the 6th of January 2019, displays a collection of objects from the 12th century to the present day. The diversity of these objects does not only lie in the fact that it shows all aspects of magic – demonic or angelic. It also lies in their different formats. Some are artistically crafted, such as books, paintings, sculptures, or even conceptual art. For example, one of the rooms is submerged in darkness, except for red lights in the shape of an animal heart, and scratching and tapping noises keep being heard. This installation represents medieval chimneys, in which a pierced animal heart would sometimes be placed in order to repel demons and witches .

This exhibition also presents a large collection of everyday items, such as clothes that were placed in the walls of houses to bound the owner to its house, and protect him, jewellery, poppets or a ritual sword with a protective crystal pommel. The jewellery collection is particularly fascinating, for it shows how protective magic was used. It could be quite passive, through the use of enchanted rings or broches of Saint Michael trampling Satan; but also aggressive, with the use of crystal to trap evil spirits or to welcome good spirits. For example, this collection shows the purple crystal that belonged to the magician John Dee , who served Elizabeth I and claimed that this crystal was given to him by the angel Uriel.

We should add that magic was often bound to scientific objects, such as flasks, manuals, or objects such as “progrosticators”, which would indicate, according to the movements of the moon, the best time to perform bloodletting on patients. This shows how the scientific understanding of the world of our ancestors was not dissociated from belief: they were closely linked together.

It was truly incredible to explore this exhibition, which felt like a precious escape in time inside the enchanted world of medieval and Renaissance Europe. I remember watching the exposed “unicorn horns” which were taken from narwhals, and imagining how it would have felt like to actually believe in their phantasmagorical origins. The presence of enchanted mirrors, for example the mirror of Floron, used to trap the demon Floron, gave me a feeling of dread at the idea of looking through them, and curiosity. Some other objects were plainly terrifying, such as witch bottles, supposedly filled with witch urine and sharp objects, placed in homes to repel witches, or auditory re-enactments of witch trials.

This exhibition ends nicely on a series of 17th, 18th and 19th drawings and paintings depicting witchcraft, such as the one in the banner of this article, drawn in 1812 by Henry Fuseli, and titled ‘The Witch and the Mandrake’.

Whether one was a king or a serf, magical thinking was present in the lives of everyone. Coming out of this exhibition, I reflected and asked myself: despite my apparent rationality, do I really think that differently from them?

 

 

Exhibition: Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft

Dates: 31 August 2018–6 January 2019

Venue: The John Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries

Tickets: £12.25/£11.25 concessions; purchase at the museum or book online; free for students.

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