A glass walkway allows you to get inside the temple without touching it. You are then treated to a rather cheesy sound and light show.
London is a massive city with 2,000 years of history behind it. It’s hard to tell these days, but the banking and financial center of it all, with its frantic building, insider wheeling and dealing, and massive cocaine consumption, is actually the oldest neighborhood. This center of commerce is called “the City”, and its area corresponds to the Roman city of Londinium, founded around 43 AD.
Not much has survived the centuries, just a section of the original city wall and a few traces in the cellars of later buildings. In 1954, however, a subterranean temple was found that belongs to one of the ancient empire’s foremost mystery religions — Mithraism. Little is known for certain about this religion since its rites were private and most written accounts are by early Christians seeking to destroy the faith.
The cult centered around worship of the god Mithras, who originated in Persia. One common scene in Mithraic iconography shows Mithras being born out of a rock, and this may be why his temple, called a mithraeum, is generally located underground. It was a secretive religion that only accepted men, and this is one of the reasons it eventually lost out to the more inclusive Christianity.
Last week I looked at the new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft. It’s such a compelling collection of folk magic through the ages that I wanted to look a bit more in detail at a few of the magic books that were included in the exhibition, along with some of the art that belief in witchcraft inspired in pre-modern times.
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 University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library has launched the largest exhibition on J.R.R. Tolkien in a generation.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth showcases the library’s extensive collection of Tolkien’s papers, manuscripts, letters, and artwork, the largest of its kind in the world. The exhibition, which includes some 200 items, also brings together items from private collections and Marquette University’s Tolkien Collection.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973) spent most of his adult life in Oxford. He came to Oxford University in 1911, aged nineteen, to study Classics at Exeter College, but later switched to English. After serving in France during World War One, he returned to Oxford to work on the New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary), while tutoring in English. After five years at Leeds University as Reader and then Professor of English Language, he returned to Oxford in 1925 and remained there for the rest of his working life, first as Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925 to 1945, and later as Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959. He is buried with his wife, Edith, in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford.
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.
Roman amphora with coral, from the Levanzo shipwreck AD 275‒300
Sicily has been the center of Mediterranean history for centuries. Positioned at the halfway point between the western and eastern halves of the sea, and between Europe and Africa, it has been a nexus of trade and warfare ever since humanity started sailing. Now a major exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum looks at the discoveries by underwater archaeologists around Sicily’s shores.
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.
The name John Dee conjures up images of a Tudor-era mage plumbing the mysteries of the occult and speaking with angels through his system of Enochian magic. This is how most people know Dr. Dee, and it is all I knew about him until I visited an excellent exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London.
Scholar, Courtier, Magician: The Lost Library of John Dee sets the record straight on a misunderstood and often maligned Renaissance man. Far more than a mere occultist, Dee was a geographer, mathematician, astronomer, world traveler, and cryptographer. He was influential in two royal courts and was an early advocate for the colonization of the Americas.
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.”