Looking back – Looking forward

Preface to the exhibition catalogue Drink from this fountain. Amsterdam 2004.

On 3 January 1983, the day when Frans Janssen took office as director of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, he entered a new acquisition in the register of purchases, De alchemia by the medieval alchemist Geber. Published in Nuremberg in 1541, it contains some of the most influential alchemical treatises to have come out of the Middle Ages. Among these is the first printed Latin textof what can be termed the Constitution of alchemy, the Tabula smaragdina of Hermes Trismegistus, with a commentary by Hortulanus.

His start under the Hermetic dictum ‘as above, so below’ could only mean that Frans Janssen, with this obvious gesture and blessing of the patron of the library, the thrice-greatest Hermes himself, had entered upon the right path. And so it could not be called a coincidence that through his well-known amiable yet effective manner Frans Janssen managed to purchase the first edition of the Corpus Hermeticum of 1471, in an overcrowded and overheated auction room of the French auction house Drouot in Paris in 1986.

As he was carried forward on winged feet, the message reached him in 1988 that a copy of the first printed edition could be bought of the Asclepius of Hermes Trismegistus, included in Apuleius’ Opera of 1469, a copy magnificently preserved with exquisitely calligraphed and illuminated initials marking the various treatises.

The ironic metaphor of Hermes Trismegistus, comparing the Hermetic initiatory way to the ‘even footpath’ which must be entered upon, had proven its full force in the threefold acquisition of these chief works of Hermes Trismegistus, which can be seen as a test of competence.

It is in this period that it was decided to institutionalize the library which I had founded in 1964. The library, the publishing house and the research institute, located at the time in my private house on the Bloemgracht, were moved to a new location on the Bloemstraat in 1984.

The library, which began its existence with a gift presented to me by my mother, Mrs Cornelia C.J.J. Ritman-Woestenberg, of a number of 17thcentury printed works by Jacob Böhme which she had found in an Amsterdam antiquarian bookshop, entered a new phase in its history with the arrival of Frans Janssen, shortly followed by his untiring co-worker José Bouman, the curator of the collection. Ten thousand works, personally brought together by me in these twenty years, were the first to be placed in the Hermetic Treasure-House in the heart of Amsterdam and were entrusted to the excellent cares of Frans and José.

The Ad Fontes principle, the solid basis for realizing quality through conscious professional practice, marks the road which Frans Janssen and his staff have travelled these past twenty years. The library’s successful and outwardbound presentation was soon noticed and resulted in fruitful communication with the international world of books.

To my great surprise an important visitor announced himself in the spring of 1989, someone who had taught and inspired Frans Janssen. He was Professor De la Fontaine Verwey, an eminent scholar and director of the Library of the University of Amsterdam. De la Fontaine Verwey had a reputation as a highly erudite and prominent scholar of religious dissident literature, which already in the sixteenth century, at the time of the Reformation, had found a safe haven in the city of Amsterdam with exponents like David Joris, Hendrik Niclaes and Hendrik Janssen van Barrefelt. The seventeenth century was to witness the publication, also in Amsterdam, of the spiritual heritage of Jacob Böhme and the Dutch translation of the Corpus Hermeticum in 1643 by Abraham Willemsz van Beyerland. All these works found an imortant patron in the person of De la Fontaine Verwey.

Seated in a seventeenth-century Regent’s chair, which I had placed ready for him in the airy living room on the Amsterdam Bloemgracht, he embarked on a very interesting exchange of thoughts on my favourite theme, the Amsterdam of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He also spoke with passion about the almost unfindable works of dissident literature and his finds and discoveries in the international book world. When I told him about my visits to the University Library, where my historical researches began in the 1960s, the happy and triumphant smile appeared of the true collector who has skilfully fished the sea of meagre offerings in this speciality.

However, he said, what I have been able to do for the sixteenth and early seventeenth century of course has its limits. There are more possibilities yet awaiting in the field of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Prophetic words, which were to come true in the form of the abundant harvest of works which have accrued in the library in the past twenty years.

As is often the case with rich and acute minds, his visit to me had a dual purpose. After having exchanged these experiences about the considerable holdings in the University Library and in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, he unfolded the second theme of his visit. This was the vacancy for the Chair in ‘The History of the Book and Libraries’ which would offer itself per 1 September 1989 at the University of Amsterdam. His preferred candidate for the post was Frans Janssen. His proposal was extremely well argued. As a result of the mutual reinforcement which would develop between the Chair at the University and the Directorship of the library, the significance and importance of the objectives guiding the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica would be safeguarded for scholarship permanently.

Frans Janssen was able to accept this honourable post after he proved to be the successful candidate in the standard procedure which had started in the spring of 1989. On 1 September he became professor, a post he had always regarded as an ideal. His brilliant career as a University professor would last fifteen years, until he retired in September of this year. In the course of his career Frans Janssen more than once proved the validity of his belief that textual design, the visible garment, is the carrier of the creative force of the author. The written and printed text in its ultimate quality, in short the visual appearance of the book, bears witness to the respect and the love which the author, the printers and finally also the circle of collectors, wish to put on record. The Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica 11 has accepted a responsibility by receiving, guarding and transferring a spiritual heritage for future generations, and in this sense acts as a shining beacon of spirituality.

Now that we have arrived at a turning point, the beginning of the third millennium, we need to strive towards acknowledgement and recognition of a component of Western cultural history which has been too long neglected, that of the Christian-Hermetic Gnosis. Apart from the cradle of Christian Theology, Jerusalem, and that of Philosophy, the power of the human mind, the capital of which is Athens, we need to focus once more on the cosmopolis Alexandria, which two thousand years ago already had a population of a million inhabitants and was the cradle of Christian-Hermetic Gnosis. As the founder and builder of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, I have always been conscious of the credo of the Philosophia Tripartita, to ‘receive, to guard, and to transfer’.

Our life is marked by growth, by the shifting of boundaries and by the progress of human conciousness. The central theme is and remains that man, as an individual, is a carrier of an indivisible divine spark. Everyone bears within himself the original awareness of God, which is present as a pure spiritual principle, as a primal key.

By means of the four pillars Hermetica, Mysticism, Alchemy and Rosicrucians, we have laid a Hermetic foundation able to sustain and foster the spiritual history of Hermetic Gnostic Christianity: a golden garment reflecting the progress of the human mind in the past two thousand years.

The exhibition catalogue ‘Drink from this fountain’ is a tribute to the philologist, translater and editor Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, and contains some fifty printed works and manuscripts which, with one exception, are all from the BPH’s holdings. The crown jewel is a dedication copy, printed on vellum, for Lefèvre’s patron bishop Briçonnet, which Frans Janssen acquired in 2000. It is a copy of the Pauline Epistles, printed in Paris in 1512. The catalogue is a testimony to the versatility of this pioneer in the history of the book, who at the pivotal turn of the fifteenth century into the next, introduced to France the philosophical and mental legacy of the Florentine Academy, being the spiritual harvest of the Italian Renaissance.

As a follower in the spirit of Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, namely as a dedicated hunter after authentic texts and their sources, Frans Janssen was able to apply his creative talent for text and design and his innate organisational skills and adorn himself with the hunting trophees which have turned the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica into the European Treasure House of Christian-Hermetic Gnosis.

Now that he has reached the symbolical age of 65 and yet is in the full bloom of his intellectual growth, we intend to salute with this exhibition the person of Frans Janssen. Courage – policy – loyalty mark the life work of one of the pioneers, who has helped to pave the way for the future development of the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica and her justified place within European society.

Finally, a word of thanks to you, Frans, for acquiring, in October of this year, Giordano Bruno’s Summum terminorum metaphysicorum of 1598, which makes it the 21st work from Bruno’s oeuvre in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. This phoenix of the Renaissance remains a model for the spiritual freedom of the human individual: ‘Who knows himself, knows the All’.

Your friend Joost R. Ritman
Founder Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica