I had a few days off work and went on a spontaneous trip to Dresden for some quiet writing time. Naturally, once I got there I spent more time wandering around the city and enjoying the sights in the last rays of the autumn sun than actually writing, and so I stumbled upon this little gem: an exhibition on the German mystical philosopher Jacob Boehme (1575-1624).
I was initially surprised to find a tribute to Boehme in Dresden. But, of course, he spent most of his life some 100 kilometres east of the city, first at Alt Seidenberg where he was born and at Seidenberg where he was apprenticed to a shoemaker, and later in the town of Goerlitz where he set up shop in the 1590s.
The ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz
Boehme was a remarkable man. He rose from humble beginnings to becoming one of the most important German thinkers. His first and principal work, Aurora, the 1612 manuscript of which is currently on display at the Palace Chapel in Dresden set out his view of the world. According to Boehme, the unfinished tract was the product of a divine inspiration going back to around 1600 when the young shoemaker contemplated on a ray of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish which revealed to him the relationship between God and man and the mysteries of the universe. Copies of the manuscript circulated among his friends and acquaintances and finally fell into the hands of the chief pastor of Goerlitz, Gregor Richter, who confiscated the work, considered it heretical and got the local council to issue a writing ban on Boehme.
Its author subsequently came to be known as the ‘fanatical cobbler’ from Goerlitz. The humble shoemaker had clearly risen above his station, and the authorities tried to keep him under control. However, Boehme resumed his writing in 1618 on the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, which he considered as a sign of the dark powers of evil at work in the world, and outlined his ideas in On the Three Principles of Divine Being. He was to write another thirty-odd works before his death in 1624 dealing with a large number of subjects from readings of the Old Testament to disputes within the Protestant community.
Boheme’s work was well received at the court in Dresden
Only one of his works, The Way to Christ (1624), was published during his lifetime. Yet, his other writings circulated in manuscript among his followers and Boehme managed to establish a considerable reputation during his lifetime and beyond. In the year of his death, he travelled to Dresden and reported in a letter that his Way to Christ was well received at the Elector of Saxony’s court. Nevertheless, the publication of his book caused controversy and he had to defend himself before the local authorities. He only walked free because he was able to prove that while he might have been the author of this work, he had not been responsible for its publication.
The current exhibition at Dresden engages both with Boehme’s life and work and with the broader context of his time. It is structured around key concepts of his writings, such as nature, darkness, creation, cosmos, rebirth, light and freedom, and it displays both manuscripts and editions of his works as well as later engagements with his thought by artists and thinkers. Alas, it is a very small exhibition. But it comes with excellent accompanying materials, including an exhibition catalogue (on which this blog post is based) and a collection of scholarly essays in English and German well worthwhile reading.
All in All – The Conceptual World of the Mystical Philosopher Jacob Böhme, 26 August to 19 November 2017. Palace Chapel of the Dresden Royal Palace.