John Dee was a scholar, philosopher, navigator, doctor, and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I of England. He is often remembered as an enigmatic man who repeatedly crossed the line between science and occultism. Recent X-Ray imaging of a painting entitled “ John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I” by Henry Gillard Glindoni provides a hidden image that highlights the mystical side of the famous historical figure.
The Guardian reports that the x-ray imaging commissioned for the recent Royal College of Physicians', exhibition “ Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee ,” revealed that Dee was originally standing in a circle of human skulls.
Detail of skulls discovered in Glindoni’s painting of John Dee. ( National Gallery, London/Wellcome Library )
The original painting may have been a more accurate representation of Dee and his interests. Examining the life of John Dee, Ancient Origins’ writer Ryan Stone wrote that:
“What John Dee was most known for was his work in attempting to commune with the spiritual world, particularly heavenly angels. This work was preceded by endeavors at understanding the unifying factor of nature, which he believed could be discovered through a combination of magical and mathematical means.”
Dee was methodical in his work, and was known to have used specific objects, such as a black obsidian mirror and a crystal ball to go about communicating with the angels . Dee’s crystal ball, “magic disc” and scrying mirror are all included in the current exhibition.
The magical tools of John Dee: golden and wax discs, a quartz sphere, and a polished mirror. ( British Museum/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Along with these items, there are 47 of the 100 books that survive from Dee’s massive library. Some of the themes of these texts are math, philosophy, history, astrology, cryptography, and alchemy. The diverse interests show that there was more to “the Queen’s conjuror” (as Dee was known in his day) than mysticism, he was also a man of “traditional” science. Stone provides an example:
“Rarely discussed in references of the New World, Dee actually helped pioneer the Voyages of Exploration England took on in the sixteenth century, aiding the various ship captains in their mathematical techniques of navigation. It was he who provided the instruments used to navigate the waters, himself being somewhat of a professional in the art of navigation.”
Speaking on the varied interests of John Dee, the curator Katie Birkwood said: “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.”
Portrait of John Dee painted during the 17th century by an unknown artist. National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. ( Public Domain )
The Smithsonian provides one explanation for Glindoni’s initial painting of the skulls, saying that “After Elizabeth died, scholars would paint Dee as a deluded fool. It's that legacy that may have inspired Glindoni to add the skulls to his painting, perhaps along with the Victorian-era obsession with death. But why did he then paint over them?”
The answer to why the skulls were painted over is uncertain, but Birkwood told The Guardian that it is likely that the person who commissioned the painting wanted a different impression of John Dee, or was just unnerved by the macabre appearance to the scene. She said “Glindoni had to to make it look like what we now see, which is august and serious, from what it was, which was occult and spooky. That epitomizes the two different impressions of Dee which people have and the fight between them.”
X-ray of the Glindoni painting showing skulls in a ring around John Dee. ( Royal College of Physicians )
Apart from the skulls, more aspects of the original painting were changed as well. An article on the painting by Hyperallergic writes that other alterations include: “the addition of Dee’s assistant medium Edward Kelley, wearing a cap that hid his cropped ears (likely a punishment for a crime like forgery, according to RCP), as well as jars and other spherical objects in front of the table near Dee.” )