Lights, camera, action – welcome to The Ritman Library!
On Thursday 7 February 2013 ‘Straten van Amsterdam’ (Streets of Amsterdam), a television programme broadcast by the Amsterdam broadcasting company AT5, visited the Bloemstraat and The Ritman Library. Anchorwoman Gülden Ilmaz talked to Joost and Esther Ritman in a fascinating journey of discovery through the library.
Curious to find out more? Watch the programme on the At5 website: http://www.at5.nl/tv/straten-van-amsterdam/aflevering. The part about The Ritman Library will start at 15 minutes (no fast forward possible).
Below you will find in English the brief contents of the interview for the benefit of our viewers abroad.
Esther Ritman: Good afternoon, we are indeed hermetically open. Welcome!
Yes, welcome, this is AT5 and I took mr. Dijkstra, chairman of the Society of Gable stones in Amsterdam, with me.
Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica; what does that mean?
This is a library of hermetic philosophy, entirely dedicated to the ideas of Hermes Trismegistus.
Hermes is a very mysterious figure, initiated in the Egyptian mysteries, who was believed to be a contemporary of Moses. It is said that in the first centuries of our era there were tens of thousands of writings in the library of Alexandria, all attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. With this means alchemical, hermetical, astrological, philosophical, religious manuscripts.
Hermes, and hermetic wisdom, basically assumes that everything in the universe is connected and that man is a mirror of both the cosmos and of God. This makes man an incredibly great miracle.
And why is this so important?
Most of us in the West are raised in a Christian context, which burdens man with the original sin. In the Renaissance, when hermetic wisdom was reintroduced, the Medici family commissioned the translation of a manuscript attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which contains this well-known saying “man, o Asclepius, is a great miracle”. Because Cosimo de Medici assumed that the works of Hermes were older than the Bible, the Western world was all of a sudden confronted with a divine revelation, which was older than the Bible itself.
The idea that man is a mirror of both the cosmos and of God, and that men cannot only know God, but also become one with God, was an incredibly heretical idea in the Renaissance. This actually underlies the Renaissance ideal of the ‘uomo universalis’ or universal human being.
The library was founded by Joost Ritman and you are his daughter and you became director here…
I have been working in the library since 1986, which has been open to the public since 1984. My father really wanted this to happen, because he didn’t want to keep the special collection which he had brought together for himself.
He wanted to share it, so that everyone in Amsterdam and everyone in the world can get to know the treasures in this library.
But from the outside it is not really clear that there is a library here. So maybe there’s a contradiction here with the idea of hermetically open…?
Yes, true. This library is sometimes called a public secret, but when I became director in 2003, I saw it as my goal to turn the common notion of ‘hermetically closed’ around into ‘hermetically open’, as is this library.
And what do we see here?
Currently we have an exhibition (Alchemy on the Amstel) on hermetic knowledge as used in medicine in the 17th century. It is said that Hermes Trismegistus is the founder of alchemy, which is associated with the art of making gold. Paracelsus, a reformer of medicine in the 16th century, said that alchemy doesn’t have to do anything with making gold.
Instead, it has to do on the one hand with knowledge of nature, the macrocosm, and on the other hand with the small world, which is the human being. He believed that diseases were not caused by an imbalance in the four body fluids, as was held in traditional medicine.
You do need some basic knowledge to get a grasp on this?
Actually, knowledge about the subjects in the library was very common in the previous centuries. For instance, when we look at this book with the burning salamander on it;
In the 17th century people in Amsterdam knew that the sign board with the burning salamander meant that the medicines in the apothecary were prepared by means of an alchemical, Paracelcian, method.
Paracelcus didn’t believe that traditional medicine, according to which an imbalance in these four body fluids had to be redressed to cure diseases, was true. Instead, he believed that in the principles of salt, sulphur, and quicksilver, which in turn stand for body, soul, and spirit. So in fact every disease is caused by a disturbance of the balance between body, soul, and spirit.
2013 marks the 400th anniversary since construction began on Amsterdam’s world renowned Canal Ring. Because of this anniversary, we like to link every exhibition this year to the Amsterdam year. The current one deals with hermetic medicine in Amsterdam in the 17th century.
Soon we will open an exhibition parallel to both the current one and a major exhibition which will open in the Hermitage in Amsterdam beginning of March. This exhibition will be about tsar Peter the Great. We know that his chymical physician, Robert Erskine, was an alchemist, who accompanied Peter the Great when he visited Amsterdam during his second embassy.
Erskine encouraged Peter the Great to explore scientific discoveries in Amsterdam.
Peter the Great visited for example the famous anatomist Fredrik Ruysch in his house on 15, Bloemgracht, which is the birthplace of my father. Ruysch made preparations as part of his anatomical studies. Furthermore, he had a great cabinet of curiosities which Peter the Great bought from him. Our exhibition will pay attention to this chymical physician, Robert Erskine.
Anyone from from Amsterdam, and from all over the world, is welcome 5 days a week to visit the exhibition and consult the 18,000 books which are on the open shelves. For those who book a guided tour it is possible to visit the ‘holy of holies’, upstairs.
(Climbing the stairs)
Why is this the holy of holies?
Joost Ritman: Here you find some 4,000 manuscripts and printed books which date from before 1800, so we are talking about manuscripts and printed works from the past 5 to 7 centuries.
How often do you still come here?
Joost Ritman: Every day. This library can be seen as a development which began with my own interest in these collecting areas. It all started with the ‘Aurora’ by Jacob Boehme. Here you see a figure, sitting on the globe and drawing a circle with his finger. In other words, life is omnipresent and it is whole. This figure is looking at what we call the ‘rota’.
In the next image we see how Jacob Boehme imagined the human being: you need to be born from God, die in Jesus and be sealed by the Holy Spirit. So in other words: life is a great miracle. I received this book from my mother when I was 23 years old, and this book evoked the image for me that everything is one and life is one great mystery.
Do you also experience it like that?
Joost Ritman: Yes, because everything you think, feel and are, is connected to your own life every single day. In fact our being human and the search for what life is really about
– where do I come from, why am I alive – how does it all connect …
For me it has always been like a great discovery. I mean, I was only born at some place at some small point in time. And so to realize that this big life stream has been there from times immemorial! I went looking for the source. In this library you can see the result of this personal search into the great writers and movements who in the West have examined, experienced, and lived according to this inner side of life. I saw it as my mission to collect al these sources and testimonies. I have been doing this for half a century now.
Why do you want to share this with mankind?
Joost Ritman: Every human being you encounter is a bearer of a divine spark. We do not only belong to this world, but we also belong to the universe. There is a saying about us humans that we are stardust. So everything you see and experience in the universe is composed of the same elements. You could say that there is something within us; but there is also something around us, which is this infinite world. So in other words:
try to know yourself, try to know the world and try to explore the connection which exists in this world
I travelled all around the world as a businessman – I was working in the aviation industry for half a century – and everywhere I went I encountered the same question and answer. So this is a subject you can discuss with every human being! What is alive inside of you, what moves within you, what are you thinking, and what are you doing? It is actually extraordinary to have these subjects gathered in a library.
I have built an incredibly important library, which I regard as my wealth. You can look at money in different ways. You could say that money is the result of personal merit. When I was active as an entrepreneur I saw a lot of the world. The word ‘wealth’, however, goes a little further. Wealth is something which is entrusted to you, and about which you can think of how to use it. This library represents in fact a treasure house which is far greater than the sum of the parts I paid for the books. It is a treasure house of human quests and as human beings we are incredible creatures walking on this earth.
When you get to know and read the message of this library, you will come to recognize that there is an immense power of love, creation, and connection, linked to everything which is living.
This is my conviction on which I have based my life. I have in fact imbued my daily life with this spirit. It is not something which you turn into after, say, 50 years. No, it is you from the moment you discover it. You could actually say that I have been busy with the true meaning of human existence these past 50 years. When you are working on that, you encounter the testimonies of thousands of people, who.
Could we maybe have a look at a very important book?
Joost Ritman: This, for example, is a beautifully coloured polyglot Bible. It was printed in Antwerp in the year 1587. In that time people strongly felt that every human being, no matter what their nationality, religion or language was, had to learn about the meaning of this spiritual world, the divine word. This Bible was like the unfolding of a world of spirituality.
Another book here is the Koran, which dates from the 16th century, so it is approximately 450 years old.
Our library maintains that, throughout human history, there have been a lot of spiritual moments which have been passed on from generation to generation.
The library collects Western wisdom, but also sources from the Early Christian period.
Esther Ritman: This here is an example of a beautifully callgraphed manuscript from the 16th century bought by my father. It tells the story of the Cup of Jamshid. It is in Persian, so I ’was unable to read it and I became curious. I checked Wikipedia, and learnt that in the Sufi tradition the Cup of Jamshid represents a similar myth as the myth of the Grail.
I understood that authors like Harry Mulisch and Umberto Eco were eager to visit the library to prepare the ground for their books. Furthermore I have understood that you are a Rosicrucian. What does that mean exactly?
Joost Ritman: A Rosicrucian is someone who accepts daily material existence, but essentially also says that there is at the same time an inside to life. This inside is the inner man, a feeling, which must be awakened.
And by that I mean in fact that all of us have a material as well as an inner aspect, and all these writings refer to the connection with the world of the spirit.
So a Rosicrucian is someone who sees three states of being: the world we know around us, the inner world, which is permanently in motion and which connects all forms of life. Thirdly, there is a source which we should recognize as the source of all creation.
To see the video: http://www.at5.nl/tv/straten-van-amsterdam/aflevering/11532 (starts at 15 minutes)