Charmed: into the Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Kristof Smeyers

Image of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, featuring the "Spellbound" exhibition.  Photo by permission of the author.
Image of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, featuring the “Spellbound” exhibition. Photo by permission of the author.

Entering the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition, you are confronted with a ladder leaning against a wall like a menacing question mark. There is no avoiding this ladder. Do you walk under it or do you go round? Even before you are inside the Ashmolean’s exhibition space, ‘Spellbound’ asks big questions about magic, ritual, and witchcraft. The ladder is a clever prelude: it shows how magical thinking is not part of a past inhabited by our ‘superstitious’ predecessors, but smugly points out that we live in a magical world today (and will still do so tomorrow). The ladder sets the tone: visitors are encouraged to engage with their own magical thinking. By the time you have made your decision, you know not to approach the magical objects in the exhibition as unenlightened remnants of delusions and misconceptions. They are, instead, intrinsic parts of people’s ‘inner lives’—not incidentally, research from the Leverhulme Trust-funded project Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300-1900 lies at the foundation of the exhibition.

‘Spellbound’ stretches out across three thematic exhibition spaces divided between learned magic, witchcraft, and folk magic, though they are best experienced in dialogue with each other: retracing one’s steps between rooms can help make sense of some of the more enigmatic objects, and help one draw emotional or sensory connections of one’s own. Together, the spaces immerse the visitor in more than eight centuries of magical thinking and feeling, simultaneously encouraging us to reflect on our own thoughts and feelings. The thematic set up invites us to draw connections across ages and cultures without, importantly, trying to convince us of a ‘universalist’ interpretation of magic.

Its innovative approach—across themes and ages—raises questions of its own. How do you create an exhibition that aims to capture interiority and emotions, in particular when those emotions and their related practices are related to subjects as wilfully elusive as the magical and supernatural? The invisible is a tricky thing to display in a glass case of a museum. Thankfully for the curators (and for us), magic has been captured in a wide variety of writings and objects—sometimes literally—for example, the small flask which famously contains a witch came with a warning from the woman who donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in the early twentieth century: ‘…if you let him out there’ll be a peck o’ trouble.’ In fact, several objects in ‘Spellbound’ hail from the cabinets of Pitt Rivers and are re-imagined in what at first glance seems like a more sterile and modern museum environment. The supernatural and the magical, so this exhibition convincingly shows in the form of hundreds of things, were profoundly material categories.

A second question that arises when looking at the many, very different objects is: How do you recreate a museum context in which a worn shoe or a feather can be ‘seen’ and ‘experienced’ by visitors as magical and emotional, ideally without having to read essay-length labels that explain its significance for the person who made it, kept it, or used it? Labels are used sparingly, and to effect. The meaning and emotional significance attributed to everyday objects instead becomes apparent when you take the time to look. Objects of magic show signs of emotional practices throughout the ages: pages of grimoires were read until they fell apart, things were carved, bound, charmed, pierced, tied, burnt, scratched, bottled.  

In other instances, the fact that they were kept is revealing in itself: the worn leather of a shoe found concealed under floorboards by homeowners, for example, attests to a patina of emotional and magical meaning that remains vivid despite—or because—of its mystifying character. The accompanying catalogue poignantly quotes Sara Ahmed’s The cultural politics of emotions on how emotions ‘stick’ to objects, whether we recognise them as magically material like the steel of a horse shoe and the obsidian of John Dee’s black mirror—or not. It is to the curators’ credit that visitors are compelled to figure out precisely how a shoe or corset were magical. That materiality becomes particularly powerful when the exhibition lets different kinds of objects communicate with one another, as in the case of the Boy with Coral painting and the piece of red coral depicting St Michael defeating the devil. Several modern art installations beautifully enrich the visitor’s sense of wonder as they wander between objects.

St Michael © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Boy with Coral © Norfolk Museum Services. Both images courtesy of the author.
St Michael © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Boy with Coral © Norfolk Museum Services. Both images courtesy of the author.

‘Spellbound’ makes clear how structures of magical thinking remain vibrant and flexible; they are not, nor were they ever paradigmatic, rigid belief systems. Rather, they constitute of pragmatic, idiosyncratic amalgams of beliefs, practices, and objects that made sense to individuals and shaped communities. They are profoundly human. This popular and charming exhibition will do much to rid us of the persistent dismissal of magical thinking as ‘superstition’ and to begin to take people’s experiences—past and present—seriously. Touch wood.

Kristof Smeyers (Twitter: @kristof_smeyers) works as a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp. His research attempts to untangle the grey areas between science and religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by focusing on supernatural religious phenomena in Britain and Ireland. 

True Colors, or the Revelatory Nature of Cold

By Thijs Hagendijk

Heat is transformative, brings about change, separates substances or bring them together. Every student of chemistry knows how to enable or enhance a chemical reaction by applying energy to a system, usually in the form of heat. Early modern practitioners did not think otherwise. Fire was the transformative element and key to the production of all kinds of different materials, ranging from the philosopher’s stone to artisanal products such as glass, porcelain or pigments. Applying heat to bring about change is publicly ingrained thermodynamics, but one thing is even more obvious. Once heated, things have to cool down again.

Figure 1: Eikelenberg’s notes on the art of painting, comprising five different manuscripts. Photograph: Regionaal Archief Alkmaar.

When the request came to write a blogpost on cold and recipes, I was somewhat hesitant. Heat seems to elicit the most interesting stories and anecdotes, but interesting cases with respect to cold failed to come to mind immediately. Hence, I tried a different approach and looked at how cold featured in a collection of overtly practical notes on the preparation of paint materials collected by the Dutch polymath and painter Simon Eikelenberg (1663-1738). Intended for publication, he promised his readers an “accurate descriptions of the origin of making, preparation and general use of paint materials, oils, mix-fluids and varnishes.”[1]  It was within the confines of this manuscript that I began to discern two themes with respect to cold in practices of making.

Figure 2: Reconstruction of one of Eikelenberg’s varnish recipes. The varnish was prepared in a glazed pot, placed in a sand bath and heated on fire. Photograph: Thijs Hagendijk.

It is only when things have cooled down that the transformative work of heat can really be judged. Eikelenberg describes for instance how he experimented with minium, a red lead-based pigment, which he heated in a crucible and placed in a fire. “The more it glowed, the more the minium turned yellow near the sides of the crucible, the lowest parts alike; which, when it was cold, appeared to be nothing else but yellow massicot.” [2] Eikelenberg also describes the preparation of various varnishes. Here too, quality and properties of substances are explicitly observed after the varnishes have cooled down. “When the varnish was cold I found that it was rather thin and that it did not cover well.” [3]  Another varnish was prepared on a hot sand bath, after which Eikelenberg “filtered it through a cloth and let it cool: it appeared then as a thickish and yellowish varnish.” [4]  Pay attention to the word “then”: there is a clear order of things that speaks through Eikelenberg’s notes. Being cold is a condition that precedes testing and Eikelenberg makes that rather explicit.

Figure 3: It is hard to achieve a homogeneous mixture when preparing varnishes. A whitish sediment is developing in this varnish, which is in coherence with Eikelenberg’s notes. Photograph: Thijs Hagendijk.

Whereas heat is transformative, it is only in the absence of heat that things can be trusted to stay the same. Continuing with the varnishes, Eikelenberg was well aware that their preparation does not stop after the ingredients have been heated and combined. As long as it is still hot, the apparently homogeneous concoction can easily coagulate and fall apart. Eikelenberg wrote in his notes: “We can conclude that to prevent curdling it is necessary not to stop stirring before the mixture is cold.” [5] Indeed, each time he made varnishes, Eikelenberg made sure to keep stirring until everything was cooled down: “stirring steadily until all was cold” or “having stirred until it became cold”.[6]

Figure 4: Eikelenberg mentions that: “[w]e can conclude that to prevent curdling it is necessary not to stop stirring before the mixture is cold.” Passage marked in red. Photograph: Regionaal Archief Alkmaar.

For Eikelenberg, heat was both friend and foe and until his varnishes reached firm, cool ground, they required careful guidance and attention. Cooling down was thus as arduous a process as heating the mixture was in the first place. Yet, once cooled down, true colors are revealed – deprived from heat and stabilized by the cold.

[1] Simon Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 391, Collectie Aanwinsten, Regionaal Archief Alkmaar: fol. 1. “Naukeurige beschrijving van de oorsprong of making, bereiding en ’t algemeen gebruik der verfstoffen, olijen, mengvogten en vernissen.”
[2] Simon Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, Collectie Aanwinsten, Regionaal Archief Alkmaar, fol. 806. Original: “na mate dat het gloejend wierd, veranderde de menij die naast tegen de zijden van de kroes aan-zat en wierd geel, gelyk ook ’t onderdtste; ‘t welk doe ‘t kout was niet anders dan gele masticot geleek”.
[3] Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 827. Original: “Doe de vernis koud was bevond ik ze wat dun en datze niet genoeg dekte.” Translation from: A. van Schendel, “Simon Eikelenberg’s Experiments on the Preparation of Varnishes,” Studies in Conservation 3 (1958), 130.
[4] Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 802. Original: “Doe ‘t wel vermengt was, kleijnsde ik ‘t door een doek en liet het kout worden, wanneer ‘tzelve een dikagtige en geelagtige vernis vertoonde” Translation from: Schendel, “Simon Eikelenberg’s Experiments,” 128.
[5] Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 824. Original: “Hieruijt kan men afnemen dat om ’t schiften voor te komen, men niet moet op-houden met roeren voordat se kout is.” Translation from: Schendel, “Simon Eikelenberg’s Experiments,” 129.
[6] Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 827. Original: “gestadig omroerende totdat het gantschelijk koud was.” Translation from: Schendel, “Simon Eikelenberg’s Experiments,” 130. Eikelenberg, “Aantekeningen betreffende schilderen,” MS 390, fol. 832. Original: “tot koutwordens toe geroert te hebben”.

 

Cold! A Recipe Project Thematic Series

Hiroshige, Two men by a gate in the mountains. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

– it’s cold! A dreary chill and rain have just descended across Europe and perhaps most of you are also cranking up the heat and bringing out winter scarves and hats. December has arrived and it seems apt for us to follow our fun and successful series on “Heat!” with a thematic series on “Cold!”. Within medical conceptions of the human body across a number of cultures, notions of hot and cold are hardly be separated. Within kitchens, craft and artisanal workshops, although heat played a crucial role in production processes, cold was also essential occasionally – especially if ingredients had to be preserved for a period of time, or if heat had to be tempered in some way.

To get ready for the long winter, our contributors have explored the notion of “Cold!” in a number of areas. Thijs Hagendijk returns to the RP with a post on the Dutch polymath and painter Simon Eikelenberg (1663-1738), detailing how cold features in the practices of his paint making with surprising insights.  Jean-Olivier Richard, a historian with interests in early modern natural philosophy, alchemy and environmental history, invites us reflect upon mankind’s impact on our planet by offering a reading of “divine recipes for a cooling earth”.

Having written about how to “treat the heat in 1793 Beijing”, Marta Hanson returns to the RP this month with a post titled “Treating the Deadly Cold in 1918 China”, co-authored with Michael Shiyung Liu. Returning to another theme explored in the Heat! Series – fertility recipes – Yi-Li Wu will tell us about Chinese formulas dealing with cold genitals, the standard historical explanation for male and female infertility.

Finally, as we move closer to the holidays, we offer a few posts to “warm” you up. Marieke Hendriksen and Ruben Verwaal return with more adventures with Boerhaave’s “little furnace” (go here for part 1 of their explorations). New contributor historian Reinhild Kreis will tell us about Christmas Cookies in 20th century Germany and our Tales from the Archives will feature the wonderful post on “snowballs” by Rachel Snell.

“Christmas Dessert of layers of fruit, arranged for color effect. ‘Snowball’ is one of the most attractive Christmas Desserts” from American Homes and Gardens, 1911.

We can’t do much about the chilly weather outside but we hope that this wide-ranging edition of the Recipes Project might distract you from the weather and inspire you to think about the cold and chills in different ways.

Enjoy and happy holidays!

Marieke Hendriksen and Elaine Leong

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Ps. This is my last edition for a little while as I’m taking a tiny break from editing the Recipes Project in 2019. Things have been all-go at the RP headquarters over the past few months, and we have some really exciting news to share with you after the holidays. So, watch this space and see you all soon, Elaine.

Alchemical Recipes in the AlchemEast Project

By Matteo Martelli

What makes a recipe alchemical? Its inclusion in an alchemical treatise, one might suggest. Indeed, naïve as it may sound, such a simple answer opens an interesting perspective from which to look at the ancient alchemical tradition.

The earliest alchemical writings produced in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1st-2nd c. AD) include recipes that describe a variety of techniques for dyeing and manipulating the natural world – a spectrum of practices that goes far beyond simple attempts to produce gold out of ‘vile’ metals. Some of these techniques, ancient authors claim, were inherited from the Egyptian or Babylonian tradition; others reached Byzantium or Baghdad, often through translations of Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic.

This long-lasting tradition is as fluid as the boundaries of ancient alchemy. By mapping the specific practices and recipes detailed in each alchemical work, it will be possible to investigate changing ideas of alchemy over time as well as how these ideas responded to specific technological settings. On top of that, it will also be possible to follow the trajectories of single recipes which moved across works written in different languages or pertaining to different disciplines, such as medicine or natural philosophy.

Cinnabar (from the Monte Amiata mine, Tuscany) and metallic mercury

But let’s take an example from a set of texts that are being investigated in the framework of the ERC project AlchemEast, acronym for “Alchemy in the Making From ancient Babylonia via Graeco-Roman Egypt into the Byzantine, Syriac and Arabic traditions (1500 BCE – 1000 AD)”. Ancient natural philosophers and physicians recorded specific techniques for extracting mercury from cinnabar, its natural ore.

In his book On stones, Theophrastus, successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, explained that it is possible to produce mercury by grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a copper mortar with a copper pestle.[1] The same procedure is described by Pliny the Elder, in book 32 of his Natural History, where the medical uses of minerals – mercury included! – are illustrated (NH 32.123).

Modern chemists noticed that these accounts actually described a mechano-chemical reaction between copper and cinnabar, a mercury sulfide: copper would react with sulfur, thus liberating free metallic mercury (chemically speaking, a redox reaction).[2] With the assistance of Lucia Maini and Massimo Gandolfi, two chemists of the AlchemEast team, we did replicate the technique with some adjustments. Rather than using a copper mortar – which proved to be very difficult to find in the shops that supply chemical labs today! – we decided to use a ceramic mortar where to grind pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder.

Pure cinnabar, acetic acid and copper powder in a ceramic mortar

After grinding the mixture for a while, we were actually able to produce a layer of blackish powder (a mixture of metacinnabar and copper sulfide) on which a few drops of ‘dirty’ mercury were moving.

Mercury “floating” on a blackish layer of residues

The same procedure is described in ancient alchemical texts as well. The Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd-4th century AD) credits legendary figures, such as Maria the Jewess or Chymes, the eponymous hero of alchemy (called chymeia in Antiquity), with the use of similar technique for grinding cinnabar with vinegar in a lead or tin mortar.[3] Different metals were therefore used. In the lab, we actually tried to use tin rather than copper powder, thus obtaining a shiny mercury-tin amalgam.

Mercury-tin amalgam

We may preliminarily observe how this extraction technique was a kind of transdisciplinary know-how, shared by experts in different fields. A certain degree of variation is detectable in alchemical texts, which mention various metals. Moreover, ancient alchemists believed that mercury could be extracted from any metallic (or even mineral) body:  did this idea in some way depend on the empirical evidence they tried to conceptualize when treating cinnabar with a variety of metals?

This kind of questions are at the basis of the AlchemEast project, which explores ancient recipes from a double angle: as textual units that travelled over time and space; as invaluable windows on a wide spectrum of real practices and techniques. Textual criticism, replications, and historical investigations are critical keys to unlock ancient alchemical sources, from Babylonian tablets to Greek, Syriac and Arabic manuscripts.  This post is only a first, tentative attempt to illustrate how we applied this method, a preliminary result of our investigation, which, needless to say, is still “in the making.” We plan to continue keeping you posted in the following months.


[1] David E. Eichholz, Theophrastus, De Lapidibus, edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 81.
[2] Lazlo Takacs, “Quicksilver from Cinnabar. The First Documented Mechanochemical Reaction?” JOM. Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, 52 (2000): 12-13.
[3] Marcelin Berthelot and Charles-Émile Ruelle, Collection des anciens alchimistes grecs (Paris: G. Steinheil, 1887-1888), vol. 2, 172. Part of Zosimus’ writings is only preserved in Syriac translation, where one finds further interesting details: cinnabar must be ground in the sun; copper filings are added to cinnabar and vinegar before grinding. The Syriac books of Zosimus will be published within the AlchemEast project.