Volume 1, Number 2 (August 1995)

Vaughan Hart. Art and Magic in the Court of the Stuarts. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. xiv + 266pp.

Review by,
Graham Parry
University of York

Parry, Graham. "Review of Art and Magic in the Court of the Stuarts." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.2 (1995): 7.1-2 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/01-2/rev_gp1.html>..

Copyright (c) 1995 by the author, all rights reserved. Volume 1.2 as a whole is copyright (c) 1995 by Early Modern Literary Studies, all rights reserved, and may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Archiving and redistribution for profit, or republication of this text in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the Editor of EMLS.

  1. The subject of magic at a Renaissance court most readily evokes the Emperor Rudolph II in his castle at Prague, absorbed in alchemy or astral studies, endeavouring to communicate with spirits, and using the arts as a medium for spiritual energies. But was something comparable happening at the Stuart court? In Vaughan Hart's estimation, there was a similar fascination with the esoteric arts in England. The particular kind of magic he associates with the Whitehall world is essentially Neoplatonic, where by means of "number, weight, measure, harmony, motion and light," the Ideas or perfect forms of the virtues may be conjured or expressed, and their powers appropriated and used to noble ends by the wise practitioners of the arts. The monarch, characterised as king, philosopher and priest, occupied a central position in this enterprise, while around him the poets, painters, musicians and architects of the court composed their harmonious, well-proportioned works that would ensure a propitious reign attuned to the Divine Will. The masque, as a composite art-form patronised by the monarch and directed to him, provided the principal and recurring focus for these Neoplatonic exercises: magic was often a feature of these productions, and there was a notable fondness for Hermetic mythology in their fables. Emblems, symbolic costumes, musical motifs and hieroglyphic dances reinforced the talismanic power of these court ceremonies, and the stage architecture with its Vitruvian discipline, itself a kind of frozen music, supplied a framework of antique authority. Hart interprets the Stuart masque in a much more insistently Hermetic way than has previously been the case, representing it not as theatre of illusion but as a glimpse of divine reality attained in a transcendent moment of court life.

  2. The chief magus in this view of the Stuart court is Inigo Jones, whose achievements and presumed intentions form a continuous thread throughout the book. Presented as the Stuart successor to John Dee, he is offered to us here as a figure of considerable philosophic profundity. We readily acknowledge him as a Vitruvian polymath, but Hart makes a strong case for Jones as a Hermeticist, an adept of the occult. This opinion draws strength from a close scrutiny both of Jones's marginalia, which indicate a familiarity with significant Neoplatonic texts, and of his architectural drawings which contain a symbolic geometry associated with those texts. Jones's only published statements about architecture and its functions occur in his treatise on Stonehenge, posthumously printed and not certainly of his own composing. Hart provides plausible grounds for accepting its authenticity, and uses it as a key document for Jones's thinking about the mysteries of his practice. By selective reasoning, the Stonehenge geometry can be shown to have affinities with the palace that Jones projected for Charles I at Whitehall, and with the restored facade of St Paul's that he undertook in the 1630s. Contemporary ideas about the plan of Solomon's Temple may also have had a bearing on Jones's designs for royal buildings. Certain Stuart architectural schemes, in Hart's view, were an aspect of the renewal of ancient Albion, understood as a place of magical virtue, mystic kingship and pure religion, and this restoration of a specifically British golden age was also a recurring theme in the masques and in the iconography associated with James I and Charles I. Hart further speculates that many of Jones's major designs were intended to mark out a processional route from Whitehall to St. Paul's appropriate to a dynasty of Mercurian monarchs. Hart offers us a Neoplatonic idea of the Stuart monarchy in its spiritual city that he believes was shared by the poets, architects and court panegyrists of the age, but in the absence of programmatic documents or explicit statements, all is conjectural. Much rare and unusual material is explored in this ambitious enquiry, and though the findings are sometimes too densely presented, they are provocative and pleasing to the mind. Frances Yates would have approved of this book.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@arts.ubc.ca.

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[JW, RGS; August 30, 1995.]