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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Conserving Angels and Demons

 Trigger warning- objects may try to steal your soul!

As a conservator for a National Museum based in London I get to care for every object in the Museum's collection. Meaning that I’m always getting to look at the fascinating objects we have in our stores when someone requests them for exhibitions and loans. Recently I got to look at a selection of beautiful objects, and found out that they had a history as good as any spooky ghost story!

The objects are some of those owned by John Dee (1527-1608). Dee was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator, and is known for being an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. He devoted much time to alchemy, divination, and hermetic philosophy (influencing the world through contact with heavenly forces).

 Dee was one of the most learned men of his age, even if we find some of his beliefs odd to us today. I recommend looking him up as his life story is brilliant; from being charged with treason and having a bit of a wife share demanded by a roguish companion, to coining the phrase ‘British Empire’, and best of all his codename for private communications with Elizabeth I was 007. John Dee is the original James Bond!

John Dee's Crystal.
 Image: Courtesy of Brought to Life.
In his work as an occultist, Dee communicated with other worldly beings to tell the future or even cure the sick. We have in our collection two of his most famous tools: his Angel Stone, supposedly given to him by the angel Uriel, and his Demon Scrying Glass. The Angel Stone object is very beautiful, with a clear cut crystal and chain. 

John Dee believed passionately in his ability to contact angels and other spirits, stating that angels had dictated several books to him in their angelic language. This was passed on to Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) who used the crystal to try and cure illness, until 1651, when he believed a demonic ghost burst out from it.
Now when I see this I’m thinking hmm, it looks like an oversized necklace. Maybe my inner eye or whatever isn’t open, but seriously it’s just some crystal in a pretty surround. Maybe I should stare harder to see if I can contact any ghosts?

  John Dee's scrying mirror, Europe, undated.

 Image: Courtesy of Brought to Life. 


He traveled all over Europe demonstrating his skills to various royal courts. The scrying mirror is a polished glass plate set into a sharkskin case and was used to communicate those more nefarious being: Demons. It was believed that if you stare into the mirror spirits, demons and devils could see you and into your soul and give you visions. I looked on a message board for people who have, lets call them, imaginative ideas about magic etc. I especially enjoyed the comment that the scyring glass could be used to open a stargate, and that the angels had told Dee it could not be opened during his lifetime. When I looked at it, other than seeing it had been damaged in the past, I saw a nice and shiny piece of glass. Unless my soul had already been possessed by a demon…

I was told a story that other John Dee objects owned by a different Museum caused a stir in the conservation department, as conservators refused to handle or work with the objects as they believed the demonic or angelic presences held in the objects could affect them. I must admit I was incredulous to hear about this, why be scared of a beautiful crystal when there are much creepier things in the next cupboard?!

We conservators had better be careful with some of our objects; if we’re not careful they may get us into contact with the devil or cause spirits to influence us from the other world!

John Dee's crystal, Europe, 1582

Claude glass believed to be John Dee's scrying mirror, Europe, undated

Written by Ministry member Emily- an objects conservator, skilled knitter, and a lover of snark

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