X-Rays Reveal Something Very Eerie In 16th-Century Painting Of John Dee

National Gallery, London/Wellcome Library

John Dee is a mysterious and controversial figure in the history of science. He was a Welsh polymath who pioneered areas of mathematics and science during the 16th century soap-opera of the Tudor dynasty. But, amid his groundbreaking studies of geometry and astronomy, Dee’s work is laced with ideas of the occult, angels, demons and the supernatural.

Using X-ray analysis on a famous painting of Dee by Victorian artist Henry Gillard Glindoni (below), researchers have eerily revealed the two sides of the 16th-century scholar.

The analysis looked beneath the superficial layer of paint and revealed that the painting, which shows Dee performing for Queen Elizabeth I, originally depicted him standing in a circle of human skulls.

"John Dee performing an experiment before Elizabeth I" by Henry Gillard Glindoni. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

The X-ray imaging was commissioned for a free event at the Royal College of Physicians that will run from January 18 to July 29, 2016, at the Royal College of Physicians near Regent's Park, London. The exhibition will feature paintings of Dee, along with a first-time look at his hand-written mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts.

Speaking to the Guardian, the exhibition’s curator Katie Birkwood said: “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. He is all of those and more.”

Why exactly the skulls were removed from the final painting is unknown. However, Birkwood suggests it was at the request of the person who commissioned the painting, perhaps unnerved by the morbid content. 

This isn’t the first time that technology has been used to reveal the secret depths of artworks. Just last month, researchers used a technique called Layer Amplification Method (LAM) to reveal a “hidden portrait” behind Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

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