A Painting of John Dee, Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, Contains a Hidden Ring of Skulls

The life and work of John Dee contained a strange mix of science and magic

John Dee
"John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I" Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A Victorian-era oil painting by artist Henry Gillard Glindoni captures one of the most enigmatic figures of Elizabethan England. In Glindoni's piece, Queen Elizabeth I sits in an elevated chair, surrounded by courtiers clothed in sumptuous fabric and the extravagant white neck ruffs of the time. All are peering with interest at the tall, black-robed figure of a man holding a vial over a small fire in a brazier by his feet. 

The figure is John Dee, the Queen's advisor and astrologer; a man who mixed science and the occult and believed he spoke to angels. The painting captures some of the intrigue and allure Dee held, but x-ray imaging commissioned for the Royal College of Physicians' new exhibition, "Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee," reveals just how unsettling his reputation became — it shows that Glindoni first painted Dee surrounded by a ring of human skulls, reports Mark Brown for the Guardian.

The Royal College of Physicians' exhibition, which opens today and will run through June 29, also includes more than 100 books in Dee's collection, which only covers a fraction of his massive library.

"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," the exhibition's curator, Katie Birkwood, tells the Guardian. "He is all of those and more.”

Dee's library once held more than 3,000 books, writes Sophie Beckwith for Culture24, but many were stolen and sold when Dee traveled through Europe. His collection included tomes on love, history, astrology, alchemy and more, a demonstration of the breadth of his interest. Many of the books in the exhibit have notes in Dee's own hand. One book on mathematics has a Latin inscription describing Dee's stay in "the house of my singular friend," a reference to the period Dee spent under house arrest with Edmund Bonner, the bishop of London. He was placed there after a letter he wrote to Elizabeth, predicting that Queen Mary Tudor I's reign would soon end, was intercepted by Mary's spies.

Though Dee escaped charges of treason, he was sent to Bishop Bonner's, a man known for his ruthlessness toward heretics. Whether the men did get along, or whether Dee was being sarcastic in his inscription, we cannot know, Birkwood tells the Guardian. But when Elizabeth did take the throne, Dee found favor in her court. 

For a time, he was "considered one of the most learned men in Europe," writes Jason Louv in his book, The Angelic Reformation: John Dee, Enochian Magick & the Occult Roots of Empire, excerpted at BoingBoing. As Louv details in his book, Dee translated Euclid's, Elements and so introduced the English-speaking world to the +, -, x and ÷ signs. So influential was Dee that Shakespeare created Prospero in The Tempest, based on him. The Bard had reason to be inspired by the mysterious figure: Dee also helped create the British intelligence service and signed his secret letters to Elizabeth with two circles, representing eyes, and the number seven, the alchemist's lucky number, writes Peter Gentle for The World of English. Centuries later, Ian Fleming would read about Dee's life and give his own creation, James Bond, the "007" code name.

Yet Dee also believed he could speak to angels using a scrying mirror made of black obsidian, wrote a new language—one which he believed was spoken by angels—and traveled throughout Europe with Edward Kelley, the scryer who saw the angels, Louv writes in his book. Those actions would gain him enemies in the Catholic Church.

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? Birkwood tells the Guardian that the patron who asked for the painting probably found them too unnerving.

"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," she says. "That epitomises the two different impressions of Dee which people have and the fight between them."

If nothing else, this new finding on Glindoni's oil painting proves that even centuries after his death, the Queen's conjurer still has the ability to enthrall us with his work.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.