Bull’s heart pierced with iron nails and thorns as a protection against witches. Found in a chimney at Shutes Hill Farm, Somerset, date unknown (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
A new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum showcases 180 real-life magical items.
Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft explores the history of magic from the early modern era to the present day through objects ranging from Renaissance crystal balls to folk charms against witchcraft. It looks at basic human needs such as fear of death and desire for love, and how people have used magic to try to get what they need.
The exhibition also turns the question of magic and superstition back on the viewer. In the entrance hallway, you are invited to step under a ladder or go around it. The museum is counting how many people dare to tempt fate. I did, and I hope they post the statistics when the exhibition is over!
The heads and hands of two apostles, c. 1519–20.
Black chalk with over-pounced underdrawing
with some white heightening.
One of the highlights of my regular stays in Oxford is visiting the Ashmolean Museum. With its fine collections of all periods, especially Medieval Europe and Ancient Egypt, it’s a place I and my family keep going back to. It also has excellent special exhibitions. I wrote up last summer’s exhibition on Underwater Archaeology for Black Gate, and this year we got to enjoy the treat of studying some little-seen drawings of an Italian Renaissance master.
Raphael: The Drawings brings together 120 rarely seen works by the Italian master, including 50 from the Ashmolean’s collection, the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world. They came to the museum in 1845 following a public appeal to acquire them after the dispersal of the collection of the portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), who had amassed an unrivalled collection of Old Master drawings. A further 25 works are on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, which will show the exhibition in autumn 2017. The remaining drawings come from various international collections.
Minster Lovell Hall with St. Kenelm’s Church to the left
As usual in the summer, my family and I are in Oxford, where I ensconce myself in the Bodleian Library and research my books. It’s been a rainy summer, in stark contrast to last month’s frying heat of Lanzarote, and so we haven’t been able to get out and about much. Good for my wordcount, bad for my travel addiction.
So when the clouds finally broke last weekend we rushed out onto an easy six-mile country ramble along the River Windrush to visit Minster Lovell Hall, a 15th century manor house set in the lovely English countryside.
On a beautiful sunny day, there’s nothing I enjoy more than walking in the English countryside. Unfortunately, most of this August has been more like autumn, with overcast skies, unseasonably cold temperatures, and rain. Ah well.
But at least I got out for one walk, along an eight-mile stretch of the Thames Path National Trail. The trail took me from the old Anglo-Saxon burgh of Wallingford to the pretty little village of Goring-on-Thames. Like most of the Thames Path, it’s an easy, level walk through attractive countryside and historic sights.
One of Ponting’s iconic images from the expedition is the Terra Nova stuck in ice. The crew had to cut away the ice immediately around the ship every day so that it wouldn’t crush the ship, a fate suffered by several other Polar expeditions.
When I’m in London I love to catch the shows at the big galleries, but I also like to check out the auction houses. Although I can’t afford to buy anything, places like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonhams often have free exhibitions of great art that, because it’s in private hands, you’ve never seen before and will probably never see again.
They sometimes have more traditional exhibitions of art that isn’t for sale. One such show this season is Visions of the Great White South at Bonhams. This brings together photography and paintings made on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913. While Scott and his forward team made it to the South Pole, they were narrowly beaten by Roald Amundsen and his Norwegian team. As they tried to return to base camp, the men were caught in a blizzard and Scott and the entire forward team perished.
While the expedition could be considered a failure, it accomplished some important scientific research as well as some magnificent artistic achievements. With the expedition were two artists. Dr. Edward Wilson was a physician, naturalist, and painter who sadly died with Scott. Herbert Ponting was a photographer. Both made some gripping images of the Antarctic that form the centerpieces of the show.
Ancient Egypt is famous for its elaborate religion with a multitude of deities and an obsession with the afterlife. While there have been many exhibitions on ancient Egyptian religion, it’s rare to see one that traces Egypt’s transformation from a land that was mostly pagan to one that was mostly Christian, then mostly Muslim, with a strong tradition of Judaism running through it.
Now a major exhibition at the British Museum, Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs, uses about 200 objects to explore the history of religion in this fascinating country. The first gallery emphasizes that Egypt still has a sizeable Christian community. While that community has been targeted by extremists in recent years, there is also a large amount of cooperation between the two faiths. Photos from the Arab Spring show Christians making a protective ring around Muslims as they pray, and the Muslims returning the favor around churches on Sunday. The Western media tend to skip these stories of tolerance for more ratings-friendly tales of bloodshed, thus giving a skewed picture of the situation. As one of my old newspaper editors said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
For many of us, the Celts are an enduring fascination. Their art, their mysterious culture, and the perception that so many of us are descended from them makes the Celts one of the most popular ancient societies. So it’s surprising that the British Museum hasn’t had a major Celtic exhibition for forty years.
That’s changed with Celts: Art and Identity, a huge collection of artifacts from across the Celtic world and many works of art from the modern Celtic Revival. The exhibition is at pains to make clear that the name ‘Celts’ doesn’t refer to a single people who can be traced through time, and it has been appropriated over the last 300 years to reflect modern identities in Britain, Ireland, and elsewhere. “Celtic” is an artistic and cultural term, not a racial one.
The first thing visitors see is a quote by some guy named J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote in 1963, “To many, perhaps most people. . .’Celtic’ of any sort is. . .a magic bag into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come. . .anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight.”