What is the mystery of the hidden skulls?

The famed X-ray of the skulls were found beneath this painting of John Dee performing for Queen Elizabeth I.
The famed X-ray of the skulls were found beneath this painting of John Dee performing for Queen Elizabeth I.

“We have to X-ray it? Why?” Charles asked the man who was running his fingertips lightly over the frames of a 152 x 244.4 cm oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni.

Adrian, who was one of the associate art curators, told his new part-time aide, Charles, “Sometimes it is standard procedure when we loan pieces out for exhibit. Then we X-ray it again when it comes back to check for any damage. A restorer can be put to work on correcting problems. This will be good experience for you. I thought you might like to be an observer.”

“Oh, yes I would. Certainly.” Charles was trying hard not to sound like the eager beaver undergraduate art student that he was.

They carefully swaddled the painting in soft cloth, placed it on a utility cart and took it to the X-ray facility in a different area on the grounds of Wellcome Library, University College, London.

As they were riding along in the van, Adrian continued. “You see, even though it is sometimes standard procedure to X-ray before loaning them out, in this instance there was a suspicion.”

“A suspicion? What?”

“We may be about to find out. One of our restorers who was examining the painting thought that there might be an under-painting. They were interested in finding out what, if anything. You know that is a common occurrence in fine art. Some of the most famous artists have painted over earlier work. We will ask to see the X-ray when the technician has it developed before we take the painting back. I don’t think he will mind. I do it frequently, look at the X-ray results.

“Sounds great. I hate to show my ignorance, but who is the John Dee depicted in the painting?”

“I had to do a review of this painting before we lent it out so now I know. John Dee was a man who entertained Queen Elizabeth I quite a bit. Sometimes they even called him ‘The Queen’s Conjuror.’ He was an interesting character of Tudor times.   He was a scientist, magician, philosopher and walking encyclopedia. He had a system of codes for recording the daily weather events, for example. He had a library of over 4,000 volumes. Sadly, his own brother-in-law let guests walk off with a good number of them while John was away. His reputation, good or bad, included the fact that he claimed he could talk to angels. He was once arrested for mapping horoscopes, some royal, without express permission. Some are almost certain Shakespeare’s Prospero, is based on John Dee.”

“Prospero? Was that character in The Tempest?”

“Yes, that’s the one. Dee, who lived from 1527-1608, was well-versed in optics, medicine, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, chemistry, geography, and navigation. He was a Fellow of St. John’s College and an original Fellow of Trinity College, as well. Let’s go grab a quick cup of coffee, then, we can pick the painting up and take it back.”

Spooky x-ray image shows skulls were originally painted on the canvas National Gallery, London / Wellcome Library
Spooky x-ray image shows skulls were originally painted on the canvas National Gallery, London / Wellcome Library

When Adrian and Charles returned to the X-ray facility, they were greeted by the technician.   He had the oddest expression on his face. “I suppose you would like to take a look at the results. If you don’t, I must insist on it.” He grinned.

As Charles and Adrian examined the illuminated X-ray, the technician waited for comments. He knew there would be some.

“Look. Suspicions confirmed. There is a circle of human skulls, dancing around the figure of John Dees. He painted over them!” Charles exclaimed.

“Hmmm. Yes he did. And now we must guess his reason,” Adrian commented as they gawked at the ghostly images on the X-Ray. “Thank you so much,” he said to the technician. “You are right. This will shake up the art world a little bit.”

In the van, Adrian continued explaining what he knew about the artist and the painting. “Glindoni, who lived between 1852 and 1913 was a British man involved in the theater. He did some of his first artwork, painting scenery and backgrounds for theater productions. He actually became quite good and when he started painting on canvas, works were often commissioned by patrons. I do not know the patron that commissioned this work, John Dee Performing an Experiment for Elizabeth I, but it was commissioned. My guess is that the patron saw it with the skulls in the painting, and asked to have them removed, Glindoni obliged—or, Glindoni himself had a change of heart and decided that he should remove them before showing the painting to the patron. This performance for Queen Elizabeth was done in Dee’s own house at Mortlake, by the way.”

“What you are saying makes sense. Charles answered. “As a starving artist that can’t afford supplies, I have often painted over my own work—all of my classmates have done the same. One painting I painted over six times before I got the final painting I was satisfied with, and the subject matter of each painting was entirely different. You can cover up the paint but you can’t cover up the brush strokes. If you look closely you can see a bowl of fruit under my landscape of Hyde Park. But in this instance it is plain to see, the skulls were not in an earlier work, and the canvas re-used. The skulls were clearly a part of the original painting and were painted out.”

“I do believe they were. John Dee was a known occultist. The bigger mystery, is why skulls? What did they mean? Only Glindoni knows for sure. Here he is in the painting, performing a chemistry experiment for Queen Elizabeth I, with beakers, fire and steam—I am sure he wanted them to think what he was doing was something magical.   You can see Sir Walter Raleigh in the painting as well. The fellow behind Dee with a skull cap on—do you know why he was wearing the skullcap?”

“I haven’t the foggiest.”

“It is to cover up the unsightly holes that were left when his ears were amputated. His name was Edward Kelly, Dee’s loyal assistant.”

“Ears amputated? Why?”

“He committed a forgery when he was younger, and that was the punishment.”

“Ew! Most harsh.” Where is the painting going to?”

“It is going on loan to the Royal College of Physicians. Part of Dee’s magnificent library collection will also be on display. There is a movement afoot to try to restore his library to its original grandeur.”

“That would be a nice gesture,” Charles said.

“Two more things will also go on display.” Adrian smiled mysteriously.


“Dee’s crystal ball and his magical mirror. The man will always remain an enigma.”

Sara Marie Hogg has written Quite Curious, a collection of stories dealing with the unknown and unexplained.


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