The Arcane and the Archive – Symposium between the Warburg Institute and the Senate House Library

Detail of Khunrath Amphitheatrum sapientaie aeternae, 1595

This one day symposium is a joint collaborative event between the Senate House Library and the Warburg Institute. It will explore facets of the world of the occult, by bringing together speakers alongside physical materials from both libraries. The occult, by its very nature, is other worldly and mysterious. As human beings are innately curious, it is hoped that this symposium will begin to reveal and unravel its secrets.

As we begin to understand its mysteries, we understand a bit more about ourselves, our history, beliefs and common humanity. A wide span of topics from the early modern to the modern period have been curated to provoke the mind: from angels and demons to witchcraft, from the sounds of the supernatural to the forces challenging the laws of nature, the imagination and the art of memory.


Unknown artist, St George killing the Dragon, ca 1497, mural, Sta Maria, Pontresina (Swiss Grisons). Photo: Joanne Anderson

The symposium will use the physical collections as a lens to project light into the occult and the hermetic tradition and will augment those in the various presentations. Attendees will have an opportunity to see these physical materials which are not often displayed to the general public.


Opening Remarks


Dr Joanne Anderson (Warburg Institute)



‘Here be dragons’ Belief, Superstition, Hoax

From ancient mythologies and biblical revelations to fantasy books and films, dragons occupy a powerful place in our imaginations. They are portents of doom, agents of occult realms and markers of the unknown (hic sunt dracones). A thing to be feared and revered in equal measure not least through their magical forms. But what did it mean to believe in these creatures in past times and did the arts have a role to play? This talk explores our curiosity with the mythic beast across the European landscape through typologies, superstitions and hoaxes. From medieval to modern, the Photographic Collection of the Warburg Institute will help us map a story of the arcane from the archives to the Alps.


Dr Roy Booth (Royal Holloway)

An adeptist of that country: John Webster of Clitheroe

Religious radical, doctor, alchemist, book collector, witchcraft sceptic, and keen observer of ‘hocus-pocus’ in all its forms, John Webster lived a life of intense engagement. This talk will introduce a fascinating man, and repeat some of his insightful stories about the local people he knew.




Dr Karen Attar (Senate House Library)

Collecting Magic

Using the example of Harry Price, the talk looks at the rationale behind a collection, the availability and affordability of material, and the competition when collecting material pertaining to magic and the supernatural in the first half of the twentieth century. It concludes with an overview of what Senate House Library as an institutional library has done with what is arguably the country’s most significant collection devoted to magical literature.


Aldo Miceli (Warburg Institute)

Angels as Symbolic Forms

The image of angels in Western art has undergone more substantial modifications than any other figure of religious provenance. Through centuries of religious imagery their visual representation, in form and signification, appears to be quite eclectic, versatile and rich in variations when compared with the depiction of Jesus, the Virgin or the Saints.

The notion of angels originate in the Scriptures; the Bible is not unequivocal in defining their form and substance, consequentially their visual representation was never a straightforward task. Their problematic ontology has provided the angelic figure with a high degree of adaptability in both iconographical terms and symbolical attributions, allowing it to follow a gradual shift from the visualisation of biblical characters to mere ornament, not too dissimilar from the acanthus leaf on Corinthian capitals.

This trajectory has meant a transition into, and a contamination with, the field of applied arts, where the representation of angels pertained less to fine art than graphic design. Angels increasingly appeared as stylised figures, often just hinting at an anthropomorphic shape; a neutral form and a sign available for symbolic attributions, some even contradicting their religious origin.




Colin J.P. Homiski (Senate House Library)

From the Witches Broom to the Theremin: Invoking the Sounds of the Supernatural

The German philosopher Schopenhauer thought that whilst the arts, like painting or sculpture, copy the phenomenal world, Music bypassed the phenomenal world altogether.

‘For this reason, the effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for the others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.’

What then does it mean when composers write something which invokes the extra-musical to capture the supernatural musically speaking? Hector Berlioz and Igor Stravinsky hid meaning away under the guise of leitmotif and the colour of instrumentation. Léon Theremin and Luigi Russolo created inventions at the beginning of the 20th century which would expand the acoustic palette for composers and forever change the listener’s perception of sound. Can we as listeners transcend the limitations of the sound world evoked by these compositions? Is it possible to divorce our understanding from the meta-listening level to perceive them in the purity of their essence? Let us find out.


Dr Guido Giglioni (Warburg Institute)

Imagination and the end of sympathy

Since ancient times, action at a distance represented one the most evident manifestations of the occult powers of nature. Among these, magnetism was almost unanimously recognized as a typical instance of activity involving no mechanical contact between the interacting bodies. The imagination, too, however, could often be regarded as a form of action at a distance and a true sympathetic force. In my talk, I will review some of the phases through which magnetism and imagination underwent a process of radical redefinition in the early modern period, a process which also affected the very notion of sympathetic action.


Dr Stephen Clucas (Birkbeck, University of London)

Occult Visions

What is that occult practitioners ‘saw’ when they looked at occult images? What kind of seeing was involved? In this talk I will explore a variety of occult images including visions revealed to ‘skryers’ in crystallomancy, and the diagrammatic and emblematic images of occult philosophers such as John Dee and Heinrich Khunrath, to investigate the ‘visual logic’ of occult images, which often disrupt the ‘perspectival’ conception of space more often associated with the renaissance.


Concluding Remarks and Reception

Please note that this event which is advertised to be in the Seng Tee Lee Seminar Room will now be held in the Goldsmiths’ Reading Room on the 4th floor, off of the Membership Hall. Tickets can be reserved here  

If you have any questions about this event please contact the Curator, Colin J.P. Homiski.

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