A cursory glance across 17th and 18th Century German esoteric tracts reveals a great fondness for impenetrable diagrams, symbols and to be honest, some quite bonkers looking cosmology. Influenced by the works of their own Heinrich Khunrath and mystic apprentice shoemaker Jakob Böhme ( Jacob Boehme or any other number of versions; his name has as many different spellings as cabala, kabbalah, qab… oh you get the picture) and our own dear Dee and Fludd, pages and pages of imposing and intricate plates attempted to explain the universe in a hermetic, spiritual, Rosicrucian and alchemical manner. Some good examples are diagrams in Von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata (1677-84), the mindbending cosmic geometry of Welling’s Opus Mago-Cabbalisticum (1735 – from which my header image is taken) and the subject of today’s piece the marvellous Geheime Figuren der Rosenkreuzer aus dem 16ten und 17ten Jahrhundert (1785-88.) Before anyone gets too excited (have a seat and a glass of water madam) it is not the first edition we will be looking at but the first (partial) English translation: Cosmology and Universal Science…Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians by Franz Hartmann Boston: Occult Publishing Company, 1888:
There are 25 full-page hand-coloured plates in this edition filled to the brim with exactly the kind of brain twisting universal view I’ve been talking about:
The plates are in fact beautiful and in this edition particularly well executed and painted. The original works were the crowning glory of the 18th Century German Rosicrucian movement embodied in the Order of the Golden and Rosy Cross ( the Teutonic grandfather of the Golden Dawn). By this time alchemy was being perceived almost wholly as a spiritual rather than practical endeavour ( which is not to say that intrepid adepts were not still blowing themselves up in laboratories or poisoning themselves with mercury) – a sort of ultimate Maslovian Self-Actualization if you will (or won’t) – and a direction discussed in the next century by Ethan Hitchcock, Mary Ann Attwood and A. E. Waite.
Franz Hartmann (1838 – 1912) was a German Theosophist and Occultist, who at one point worked with Blavatsky in India. He wrote a number of books – Magic Black and White probably being his best known and most enduring work – many of which concerned Rosicrucianism. He was also a great believer in the dangers of premature burial being the sort of person who would want to be buried with a piece of string tied around his toe attached to a bell sticking out of the sacred ground to alert the Sexton he was still breathing:
He also wrote a book about Gnomes, but as a proud member of The Horde, the less said about that the better…
In the typical bitchy way of the Occult world, other authors ‘had a go’. Gardner in his Bibliotheca Rosicruciana bibliography (1923 second enlarged edition) is suitably sarcastic: ‘This is the work that F. Hartmann reproduced as a wonderful find in an old monastery, but which was already well known to be in existence.’ I cannot find this reference to a monastery anywhere in Hartmann’s introduction, and perhaps Gardner should have looked closer to home, for example, MacGregor Mathers’ (his Golden Dawn boss) translation of The Book of the Sacred Magic without reference to the 1725 edition which apparently no-one had heard of. The Aries Press edition of 1935 also gives Hartmann a hard time about translating only parts 1 and 2, but perhaps he only had access to the first two parts ( all three were separately published over a three-year period.) A quick glance through Worldcat, seems to show only two American Universities have any of the original parts, even today.
Hartmann was there first – his introduction is a thoughtful overview of Rosicrucian mysticism, the book is beautifully produced (about 43cm tall), printed on watermarked, laid paper with well executed colouring ( to be honest, none of the later editions seem to reproduce the original colouring accurately, but Hartmann has a good go at it)
I’ll leave the final words to Hartmann:
“Those symbols are easily comprehended by him who finds the key to their understanding within his own heart; but to all those others they will be unintelligible , because they will see merely their external forms and cannot enter their spirit.”