Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft

Ashmolean, Oxford 2018

31 Aug 2018 – 6 Jan 2019

From Aether to Air

A tableau comprises a crystalline figure above and demons below.

Set against a vivid blue background of angels, a gender-neutral form lies supine, cast in aluminium potassium sulphate – its presence luminous and semi-transparent, seemingly solid yet fragile. The crystalline sphere is one of the few medieval innovations of the ancient cosmological model; the crystal figure connects the earthly body to the heavens and evokes the perfection of the souls of the blessed as they discard corruptible flesh and gain eternal purity.

Below squats a pair of demons, cast from molten sulphur and iron, set against a film of sulphuric chemical turbulence. Demons were fallen angels who had lost the war in heaven after their rebellion against God and who were able to take any form they liked. Fear of their incursions in the physical world combined with anxiety about malign planetary influences on the body.

Ackroyd & Harvey’s tableau is an evocation of the medieval cosmos in which humans had to navigate the competing celestial forces of celestial influences, and deal with good and evil spirits. 

It is no easy task to understand the complexity of the medieval mind. Our modern universe is composed in part of dark matter, dark energy, black holes and anti-matter. Astrophysicists admit to understanding only 4% of this seemingly infinite and ever-inflating space. The medieval cosmos by contrast was unambiguously finite, it had perfectly spherical shape and ordered variety, luminous and populated with spirits, demons, angels and God.

It comes as a surprise to realise ‘how overwhelmingly bookish’ or of ‘clerkish character’, medieval culture was.

‘If their culture is regarded as a response to environment, then the elements in that environment to which they responded most vigorously were manuscripts.’ (C.S. Lewis.1964).

Knowledge depended predominantly on books. Even though by our standards of literacy, many could not read in medieval times, manuscripts were a foundational and pervasive element to the total culture. The medieval approach was finely attuned to systemising their inherited multiplicity of written doctrines, poems, sermons, philosophical texts, from very different origins to create a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe.

The medieval depiction of the universe contains the order and influence of the planets, and as Sophie Page points out in her introduction to Magic in Medieval Manuscriptsthe term ‘magic’, was used by theologians to challenge and criticise undesirable rituals and natural objects not deemed to fit ‘their established theories of cause and effect.’

The Christian church was striving to establish doctrine according to the testaments and gospel of the bible, yet the predomination of demons and angels in the Christian cosmology and their ‘role as intermediaries between heavenly and earthly realms’ gave enough leverage for medieval men and women to seek their influence in matters of the heart, or ill-gotten acquisition through magical means. Hierarchies of demons existed. Spirits were summoned. Celestial visions were conjured through incantation and use of magical objects.

The medieval cosmos placed the earth ‘nested’ within a series of concentric spheres of the elements, planets and fixed stars. ‘Within its structure of perfect spheres was an ordered variety in which all created things were joined in harmonious cosmological schema. Tensions in this system remained, such as between the competing forces of celestial influence (good and bad spirits)’. (S. Page The Medieval Universe)

Angels could fall from their celestial realms and mutate into devils. And man as depicted in painting and drawings as ‘microcosmic man’, was held under tension as a bombardment of planetary forces rendered his elemental bodily organs, attributes and temperament in thrall to the forces of the universe.

As planet Earth in the 21stcentury undergoes profound climate change, there are growing debates about the hand of man on both a microcosmic level (pollution/urbanisation/population growth/consumerism/bio-diversity collapse) and on a macrocosmic level (climatic/oceanic/atmospheric alterations).

The ‘Anthropocene’, or the ‘age of humans’ is gathering traction as a term for a new geological epoch; man is placing himself at the centre of an epic drama of climatic apocalypse and environmental degradation. Raising his status to that of either a god or despot, his ambition is now beyond that of ‘microcosmic man’ but is elevated to that of ‘macrocosmic man’ as his name is indelibly inscribed in the fullness of geological time as he reaches mythic status.

When studying the medieval cosmos and the consecutive spheres, we were interested to learn from Sophie Page that the crystalline sphere is one of the few medieval innovations to the ancient cosmological model. Developed from commentaries on Genesis 1.7, when God divided the waters between those above and those below the firmament, the ninth sphere or Primum Mobilewas luminous and transparent. In Dante’s cosmological view, it was the swiftest moving sphere and the origin of life, motion and time in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic universe. This was an influential sphere regarded as the supreme physical heaven in the universe, enclosed only by the Empyrean – the mind of God. Love is enkindled in the Empyrean and the creative power that the Primum Mobile initiated, inspired movement in the spheres below and the natural operation of the universe.

Significantly, it lacked a celestial body.

In an act that knowingly transgresses the careful order of the medieval model, we are intending to grow a crystalline sculpture, a gender-neutral figure that lies in supine form on a raised glass shelf that suggests a transcending of time and bodily elements beyond the planetary besieged microcosmic man. We are placing our contemporary concerns into the medieval backcloth mix, where man manifests in luminous crystalline form in the sphere of movement and origin of life. Man as ‘macrocosmic man’ is now a prime mover in the natural operation of the universe.

Whilst we could think that in our post-enlightenment, scientifically deterministic world that we have extricated ourselves from the binds of astrological influences of the planets, our recent visit to Sri Lanka confirmed how people’s lives and decision making processes are influenced as a daily matter of course by their star charts. Marriages are made on planetary compatibility. Political decisions on astrological readings.

Contemporary academic papers discuss the need to ‘decolonise’ the Anthropocene, and a growing voice speaks for the need to also ‘desecularize’ it – ‘to be aware that in the new age of the Earth we may be coeval with gods and spirits.’ (B. Szerszynski 2017)

In the turbulence that societal inequality and climate chaos is creating the question arises whether entities of malevolence (low spirits) will gather in force. Ranil Senanayake, a systems ecologist has recalibrated the chemical formula for the burning of hydrocarbons to show how two biotic oxygen molecules attach to the release of a fossil carbon molecule, and how fossil hydrogen that resides with the fossil carbon forms new water vapour, a potent greenhouse gas that amplifies the effects of greenhouse warming. Oxygen, the breath of life is being stolen from the atmosphere. Stolen from our lungs. Senanayake draws on William Blake’s prophetic description of “the dark Satanic Mills” of the Industrial Revolution where “all the Arts of Life they changed in Arts of Death” and calls his equation The Satanic Formula.

‘As the dark inversion of divine mastery, a demon is a being that has no life of his own so survives only by capturing life.’

In the Medieval Model, demons are creatures of a middle nature between gods and men, and can act as intermediaries between the two. They inhabit the region between Earth and aether – the air, which extends upwards as far as the orbit of the moon. Beyond the moon is the realm of the angels, the translunary. Below, the sublunary filled with fallen angels or demons.

Medieval paintings and drawings depict an eye-boggling array of demonic creatures, some with with bat-like wings, snaking tails, hairy and horned monsters that have faces on abdomens and arses, extended claws and in some cases, enormous phalluses.

We are creating a tableau, crystalline ‘macrocosmic’ man above, a demon below. We are exploring the properties of sulphur as a material agent for the demon. Sulphur is a chemical element and most elemental sulphur is produced as a by-product of removing sulphur-containing contaminants from natural gas and petroleum. Bright yellow, when burned, sulphur melts into a blood-red liquid.

A third presence, a vulture wing is also an area of exploration, and we hope to include this in the tableau. Vultures, the stealer of eyes and brains from corpses, play an important role in the medieval world of magic and influence.

We are finding a strong chord that connects us to the medieval cosmos that Sophie Page has opened up to us, and our own preoccupations with planetary environmental crisis. What strikes us about the medieval mind is its extraordinary ability to vividly synthesize multiple views from different origins into a luminous, transparent, legible model. A work of art.

Szerszynski suggests that our transformed planet ‘is coming to combine ontological multiplicity and interconnectedness in new ways.’

‘If the Earth is entering a new epoch, I would suggest it is one in which we will have to pay attention not only to our own gods, spirits or demons, but also to many others, distributed but increasingly cohered across a troubled planet.’

Our thinking is not to illustrate historically accurate renditions of the medieval universe, but to collapse time and find where the medieval still lays claim to our imagination. Overlay and transgression are methods to open up and reveal new artistic interpretations of a medieval cosmos that now seems so much closer to us than we could ever have thought.

Ackroyd & Harvey February 2018