Secrets of Bolsover

Castle revealed

A scene from the Elysium Room. © English Heritage

A centuries-old puzzle behind the meaning of mysterious paintings at Bolsover Castle has been solved by a team of researchers from the University. Led by Dr Crosby Stevens, Honorary Research Fellow, with the assistance of Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy, their results suggest that 17th-century paintings decorating the castle’s keep, or Little Castle, were used as part of a series of private plays and entertainments. These were organised for friends and relatives of the then owners, the Cavendish family of Welbeck Abbey. The theme of the paintings was magical transformation, love and virtue.

The artworks were intended to be interactive and multisensory. As Dr Stevens explained, “Visitors could imagine that they moved in and out of curious painted worlds during banquets and bespoke amateur shows that featured music, dancing and dressing up – it was an early form of virtual reality. The site was used by the Cavendish family and their high-ranking friends for personal engagement with imitation and role play in the pursuit of both pleasure and virtue, encouraged by the paintings.”

A magically transformative experience.”

King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria were entertained by a piece by Ben Jonson when they visited Bolsover in 1634 in which Eros appeared to have descended from the paintings to greet the King. William Cavendish and his daughters copied the idea and continued writing plays with characters that could have stepped down from the picture space to become part of the performance.

Professor Hobbs added, “The paintings illustrate a quest for transformation and spiritual enlightenment – these themes are playful reflections of the Neoplatonic ideas that imbued Renaissance philosophy. All the paintings in the Little Castle tell visitors that a celebration of physical, worldly love can be spiritually cleansing and a magically transformative experience.”

Bolsover Castle and its paintings can now be viewed on the English Heritage and Google Arts & Culture platform, which includes three virtual tours guided by Dr Stevens and Professor Hobbs. Visit and search for the Bolsover Castle section.

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