Katharine Dowson (Sculptor): Bewitched


Commentary by Sophie Page (Historian)

Bewitched is a mirrored glass heart that sits on a traditional black wooden base as if it is a specimen in a museum. The blown glass heart is silvered on the inside and the red braid on the black base acts as a protective ring around the heart. Gazing at its undulating mirrored forms, the image of the viewer is distorted to seem surreal and otherworldly.

Katharine Dowson conceived the idea of a glass heart for the exhibition I co-curated, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford in 2018. In her installation Concealed Shield the heart evokes a protective shield within the home against outside malignant forces. When Katharine accepted a residency and commission from UCL in 2019-20, the heart became a starting point for our conversations.


Bewitched: side view


Medieval people believed that the heart was the seat of the soul, the conscience and the passions. In ritual and imagery the heart was a sympathetic substitute for the whole individual, which made it suitable for rituals of devotion and magic. Votive wax hearts left at saints’ tombs deputised for the suffering individual, while some wealthy men and women requested that their hearts be removed from their bodies after death and buried separately to aid their soul’s salvation. The heart was also linked to the sense of vision because beauty was thought to strike the heart of the lover through the eyes.

Sculpture top

Bewitched: view from above 


The link between the gaze and the heart was important, and the silvering of the glass heart in Bewitched evokes the tradition of ritual magic in which shiny objects such as mirrors, bottles and swords were used to divine the future, dissolve the boundaries between humans and the spirit worlds and trap demons. For example, a fifteenth-century magic experiment commands demons to pour their virtue into a mirror so that anyone who looks into it is instantly inflamed with love. 


Bewitched: side-view 


Witchcraft theorists thought that men and women suffering from extremes of emotion were particularly vulnerable to temptation because demons promised to help them in return for the surrender of their souls. Bewitched assembles the contradictory and provocative meanings of the medieval heart: devotional, romantic, divinatory and demonic.


Bewitched: side-view 


Sophie Page, “Love in a time of demons: magic and the medieval cosmos”, in Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, ed. Sophie Page and Marina Wallace (Ashmolean Museum, 2018)


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Making the sculpture