Exhibition on the mystical philosopher Jacob Böhme in Coventry

Jacob Böhme (1575-1624) is one of the most important German thinkers: he made an impact on literature, philosophy, religion and art well beyond national borders. 100 years after the Reformation, Böhme argued for a far-reaching philosophical and spiritual renewal. An exhibition in Coventry Cathedral will introduce Böhme's thought and his influence in Britain.

  • Laufzeit 29.04.2019—05.07.2019

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"The gate was open to me": with these words, Böhme recalled an experience he had in 1600. He claimed to have gained access to the mystery of the Divineand its presence in nature. This experience was the foundational intuition that prompted him to write; ultimately he produced around 30 books. Böhme was self-educated, and lived most of his life in Görlitz, where he worked as a shoemaker. Böhme stirred controversy in the city when his first book, Aurora (Morgenröte im Aufgang) started to circulate in manuscript and was confiscated by the cityauthority in 1613. Accused of spreading unorthodox views, Böhme was warned to stop writing. Yet, he resumed in 1618, likely urged on by the beginning of the Thirty Years' War and the sense that the world needed his message.

© SKD, photo: H. Boswank
Joseph Mulder after Jan Luyken, Jacob Böhme in his Cobbler Shop, 1686

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His books deal with natural philosophy, as well as with religious controversies; they range from large philosophical treatises to shorter devotional booklets. Throughout his life, Böhme had to face accusations of impiety, especially from the Chief Pastor of Görlitz, Gregor Richter. Yet, he also received support both in and outside the city, including from noblemen. In 1624, he was a guest of the royal court in Dresden, where he hoped to be able to present his views. He fell ill on the way back to Görlitz and died in the night between the 16th and 17th of November. His grave was vandalized soon after the burial, indicating just how controversial he was, even in death.

© SKD, photo: H. Boswank
City of Görlitz, 1650

Jacob Böhme in Britain

The writings of the mystical philosopher from Görlitz reached England in the 1640s and by 1662 most were published in English. From their earliest publication, Böhme's writings were influential in Britain.Those who imported Böhme's texts hoped his views would help to overcome sectarianism. Böhme believed that all people - not just Christians - have a Divine "Light" within.This idea resonated with Quakers, who also agreed that "no Christian can make war." Yet many early "Behmenists" were republican military officers. They looked forward to a return of paradise on earth, as described in Böhme's writings. His translator John Sparrow even tried to establish a religious free state in the Caribbean. As new scientific discoveries shook traditional views,17th-century philosophers and scientists were inspired by Böhme's efforts to reconcile religion and science.The "Cambridge Platonist" philosophers, especially Henry More, appreciated Böhme, as did Isaac Newton. Like Böhme, Newton believed that one could learn about God through nature.

© Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, Amsterdam
Dionysius Andreas Freher, Illustration from: The Works of Jacob Behmen, 1764–1781

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Around 1700 Böhme's popularity surged. Appealing to Böhme, the London "Philadelphian Society" and its leader, Jane Leade, sought to unify all confessions, and the German artist-philosopher Dionysius Andreas Freher created fascinating pop-up books to explain Böhme's ideas about the transformation of human beings from sinful to redeemed. Some of the new readers of Böhme left for North America, where they became early opponents of slavery in the colonies. 

© Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, Amsterdam
Dionysius Andreas Freher, Illustration from: The Works of Jacob Behmen, 1764–1781

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Böhme's vision of a harmonious world and his creative language inspired many English poets and artists, including John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and especially William Blake who was deeply impressed by Böhme's writings on the role of the divine in human imagination. Böhme's emphasis on the dignity of humanity and on peace and freedom make his writings more timely than ever.

© SKD, photo: H. Boswank
Pieter van Gunst, Portrait of Jacob Böhme

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