The BPH collects in particular medieval and later western mystics with a demonstrable affinity with Hermetic thought: these include Meister Eckhart, Suso and Tauler, but also Jacob Böhme and his followers, for whom the Dutch Republic for more than a century (1630-1735) was to become a safe haven and a centre of spiritual activities. This collecting area also holds numerous works of 16th-century spiritualists such as Sebastian Franck, Miguel Servet, Sebastian Castellio and David Joris.
Medieval mysticism: three great German mystics
The mystical current within the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe flowered in the persons of the three great German mystics: Meister Eckhart, Suso and Tauler. Eckhart (c. 1260-1328) and his followers Heinrich Suso (c. 1295-1366) and Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361) were inspired by the neo-Platonic tradition which continued to exert an influence in spite of the hegemony of Aristotelian thought, and which comprises works of a Hermetic nature. A number of the propositions by the great exponent of German mysticism Meister Eckhart which incurred papal censure in 1329 can be called purely Hermetic. Suso adopted Meister Eckhart’s idea of the divine man (homo divinus), an originally Hermetic view of man (cf. Asclepius). Tauler speaks of God in terms derived from the ‘theologia negativa’ as elaborated by Dionysius Areopagita, calling him the ‘ineffable mystery’ and quoting from the pseudo-hermetic Liber XXIV philosophorum: ‘God is the darkness in the soul which remains after all light’ (definition XXI).
The Modern Devotion movement is an originally Dutch mystical movement initiated by Geert Groote which sought to encourage pious practice to arrive at an inner Christianity; the ideals of the movement found expression in Thomas a Kempis’ De imitatione Christi.
Mysticism and spiritualism 16th century
In the 16th century several philosophical and religious thinkers, (radical) reformers and spiritualists advocated religious freedom and opposed the orthodoxy of both Catholic and Protestant churches. A source of inspiration for German mystics and spiritualists in this period is the Theologia Deutsch. The section on 16th-century mysticism includes works by Johannes Hus, David Joris, Caspar Schwenckfeld, Miguel Servet, Sebastian Franck, Sebastiano Castellio (whose Contra libellum Calvini was suppressed and was only published in 1612, in the Netherlands) and Valentin Weigel.
Jacob Böhme – 17th-century mysticism
Another major focus within the mysticism collecting area is Jacob Böhme and his followers and disciples, who for over a hundred years (1630-1735) found a sure refuge and a centre of spirituality in the Dutch Republic. Only one work of the German mystic and theosopher Jacob Böhme (1575-1624) was published in his lifetime. The Amsterdam merchant Abraham Willemszoon van Beyerland managed to acquire a number of Böhme’s theosophical and mystical manuscripts in the years 1637-1638, the first of over a hundred manuscripts that would find their way to Amsterdam in the seventeenth century. Beyerland translated the works of Böhme and published them at his own expense. The greater part of Böhme’s heritage, therefore, first appeared in the Dutch Republic, both in the original German language and in Dutch translations. The first three editions of the complete works (1682, 1715, 1730) were also printed in Amsterdam. The collection of the BPH also reflects the Hermetic book collections that were brought together by Beyerland and the Behmenists, comprising works in the field of hermetism, mysticism, theosophy, Paracelsism as well as works by the Philadelphians – a mystical group of followers of John Pordage en Jane Lead in Engeland – and the disciples of Johann Georg Gichtel and the so-called ‘Engelsbrüder’ in Germany and Switzerland.
Mysticism and pietism 18th century
The pietist movement, with its stress on inner piety and a life led along Christian principles, remained an important factor into the middle of the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment and Early Romanticism. New works in the field of religion and spirituality were produced by mystics and theosophers like Franz von Baader, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin ‘le philosophe inconnu’ (originating from the circles of mystical freemasonry himself, he was inspired by Böhme’s work), Karl von Eckartshausen, Fabre d’Olivet, William Law, Martines de Pasqually, Gerhard Tersteege and chiliasts like Joanna Southcott.
William Law and William Blake
The English mystic William Law published the collected work of the Jacob Böhme, including three diagrams visualizing his cosmogony. The diagrams illustrating the ‘deep principles of Jacob Behmen, the Teutonic Theosopher’, as they were announced in Law’s edition of Jacob Böhme, were originally devised by Dionysius Andreas Freher (1649-1728), a follower of Böhme. Freher also provided explanations to these figures, which were likewise included in Law’s edition. The theosophical ‘pop-up’ diagrams are astonishingly complex works of art, opening up to reveal deeper layers of meaning. The English visionary poet William Blake was an ardent admirer of the mystical work of Böhme and called him a ‘divinely inspired man’. Blake knew Law’s edition of the works of the German mystic Bohme well. Blake has a separate place in the section of mysticism as a transitory figure between the 18th and 19th century.
Mysticism 19th century-present
Classical works on Western mysticism at the turn of the 19th century were Huxley’s The perennial philosophy, Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism and William James’s Varieties of religious experience. From a historical and religious-spiritual point of view, this subsection cannot be separated from most of the other sections within Western esotericism: Rosicrucians, Theosophy, Anthroposophy and 20th-century Gnosis. Works belonging to the late 20th-century New Age movement are, however, not collected.