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Elizabeth I and John Dee

A painting showing a man dressed in black demonstrating something before the Elizabethan court.

Wellcome Library, London

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  • Intro
    Museum's Description
    Teacher notes
    • John Dee was an Elizabethan scientist, but science at this time was closely associated with magic, and Dee was often thought of as wizard-like.

      If you didn't understand science, you might believe in magic. Imagine if you saw a lightning storm, but didn't understand the science of electricity, you might believe it was magic that caused these bright flashes in the sky.

      In Tudor times, before the laws of nature were properly undersood, lots of things that happened couldn't be explained. In an attempt to understand the world around them many people justified these unexplainable things through a belief in magic.

      In this painting from he Wellcome Collection John Dee is shown performing an experiment for Queen Elizabeth I and her court. If you hover your mouse over the image you can zoom in on the faces of all the people in the room, they all look very interested in what he's doing don't they?

      If you look closely at Dee you'll see that he is pouring something from a little dark bottle into a small bowl on the floor. The liquid is creating a bright white fire with sparks of blue, that certainly looks like magic to us.

      In the Tudor times, when science was only just beginning to be understood, it would have been very difficult to tell what was magic and what was science.

      Things to think about...

      • Do you think the artist has presented John Dee as a scientist, a magician or a showman?
      • Why might science and magic have been so closely connected in Elizabethan times?
      • Can you think of an experiement that would give similar results to what's going on in the painting?
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