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'Conjurer' originally surrounded by skulls in painting with Queen Elizabeth

The skulls are thought to be a reference to his interest in the occult.

By Stephen Feller
'Conjurer' originally surrounded by skulls in painting with Queen Elizabeth
John Dee performs an experiment for Queen Elizabeth 1 in the oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni, but new analysis shows Dee originally was surrounded by a halo of skulls -- a nod to his well-known interest in the occult. Photo by Wellcome Library

LONDON, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- A painting of John Dee performing an experiment for Queen Elizabeth I originally included the polymath standing in a circle of skulls, a possible reference to his interest in the occult.

The halo of skulls was found in an X-ray analysis of the Henry Gillard Glindoni painting, which is part of an exhibit on Dee, known as "the Queen's Conjurer," at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

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Experts involved with the show said they did not know why the skulls would have been painted out, but the fact that they were reveals some of the controversy surrounding Dee.

"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," Katie Birkwood, curator of the exhibit, told The Guardian. "That epitomizes the two different impressions of Dee which people have and the fight between them."

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Dee, who lived from 1527 to 1609, was a mathematician, cryptographer, astronomer and scholar who advised Queen Elizabeth, navigators on trade routes, and traveled. He also was known for an interest in the occult and alchemy, and said he talked to angels.

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Dee alternately is known either as a spy for Queen Elizabeth who may have inspired James Bond or as a heretic who was confined to house arrest by Queen Mary Tudor for sorcery, according to CNET.

In addition to Glindoni's painting, the exhibit at Royal College includes "magical objects" he may have used to talk to angels and 40 of the 100 volumes of Dee's library the college holds. Dee said he had more than 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts in his personal library.

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"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," Birkwood said. "He is all of those and more."

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