ENTERING the Ashmolean Museum’s new exhibition, I felt a distinct chill accompanied by a shiver down the spine.

After a run of blockbuster art shows from the likes of Michaelangelo and Leonardo, the country’s oldest public museum has taken a step back from the divine and cast its gaze on something altogether more malevolent and mysterious – our long-held fascination with magic and superstition.

Spellbound: Magic Ritual and Witchcraft features 180 objects dating from the 12th century to the present day – and many of the objects on display are guaranteed to give you the willies.

This starts early on with an innocuous looking silvered glass flask said to contain a witch, which is from the collection of that repository of all things weird and wonderful, Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. A handwritten label dates it to 1850. That’s an awfully long time to be trapped in a small bottle and would, one assumes, make for a very angry witch. I wouldn’t have liked to be the guy responsible for carrying that one across town.

Things get darker still with a Chinese wax figurine pierced with pins, a cloth ‘poppet’ stuck through with stiletto knife and a witch’s garland: a 19th century Tuscan magical charm made of feathers and bones which would have been concealed in a mattress to cause death.

Gruesome, yet strangely romantic is the real human heart in a heart-shaped locket, dating back to 19th century Ireland.

A toad’s heart – a jumbled mass of glistening black matter – stuck with thorns suggests more mischief as do bull’s and cow’s hearts pierced with nails, thorns and pins. The former, we are told was found up a chimney to smoke and shrivel, hurting those practising witchcraft, while the latter belonged to a Bethnal Green dairyman (which itself seems improbable today) who used it as a talisman against a man he believed had cursed his cows.

Also found concealed in houses were a mummified cat and rat, and, closer to home, a miniature shoe-shaped pipe-tamper discovered hidden in the chimney of a 17th century house in Eynsham.

The most beautiful items are those designed to protect the owner, rather than harm others. They range from gorgeous amulets to homespun, but strangely attractive charms marked on an oak barn door.

A ceremonial sword with rock crystal reliquary is particularly striking. Surely this is what Excalibur should look like.

Then there are the methods used to commune with the other side – crystal balls and magic mirrors – and pseudo-scientific devices such as a prognosticator used to calculate bloodletting times and books on dealing with witches – along with a woodcut of the notorious Witchfinder General himself, Matthew Hopkins, rudely interrogating a pair of ladies who respond by summoning demonic imps by name.

Frankly, I don't blame them.

Contemporary artistic responses to the objects complete the show and provide the most visually arresting moments.

Ackroyd & Harvey's From Aether to Air features a pure cystyalline figure seemingly ascending to heaven, with cystal matter growing under our very eyes. Beneath it, sulphur demons stand guard over a fiery realm of glowing red, a dynamic embodiment of the celestial realm - to the medieval mind at any rate. 

Katharine Dowson's glass casts of hearts - including her own - are at once beautiful and unsettling. Her Pierced Ventricle is just that - a cast of the most cebtral part of her anatomy stuck through with nails. A brave woman!

That such objects still resonate and spark unease in us, shows that, even in the digital age, our fascination with magic and superstition still runs deep.

  • Spellbound runs at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until January 6, 2018. Go toashmolean.org to book tickets