What to book: ‘Spellbound’ at the Ashmolean Museum

From crystal balls to witchcraft trials, a new exhibition explores magic, mystery and all things fantastical

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), ‘The Witch and the Mandrake’, c. 1812. © Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Do you believe in magic? You might not think you do, but if you avoid walking under ladders and sneak the occasional “tempt fate” or “touch wood” into conversations, then, subliminally at least, you’re buying into the notion that your thoughts and actions influence situations beyond your control. Superstition and rituals transcend time, culture and demographics, and in the Ashmolean’s autumn exhibition, ‘Spellbound’, our scepticism about both past and present practices is put to the test.

Focusing on love, and our emotional response to attaining and retaining desires, the exhibition opens by exploring the mediaeval cosmos, where keeping on the right side of invisible spirits concerned everyone, from paupers to kings. But do unseen forces have a place in current thinking? Consider the similarity between a display of 15th-century gold rings engraved with promises of loyalty and modern rituals involving padlocks (these taken from Leeds Centenary Bridge) bearing promises and mottos. The act may be symbolic, but the intention of binding relationships is the same.

Matthew Hopkins, ‘The Discovery of Witches’, 1647. © The Provost and Fellows of The Queen’s College, University of Oxford

A central, larger gallery is dedicated to the home and an ancient belief in the need to protect it from force fields. All the items here – including dead cats and pierced animal hearts – were concealed in chimneys and wall cavities to combat threats, whether mundane or supernatural. If you’re questioning the rationality of such thinking, bear in mind the practice of Feng shui.

The incidence and attraction of sorcery are captured in drawings displayed in the exhibition’s final section, which includes details of the country’s last witchcraft trial, held in 1944, when Helen Duncan was branded a fraudster.

John Dee’s purple crystal, said to have been given to him by the angel Uriel, Europe, 1582. © Science Museum, London

Complementing this collection of sometimes mysterious, often macabre, objects, ‘Spellbound’ showcases three contemporary installations that reflect an ongoing fascination with the unknown. Oh, and there’s a ladder to walk under – or to avoid. Your call.    

‘Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft’ runs until 6 January 2019 at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford. Sandra Smith is a freelance writer. 

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