What is it about old books?

No, I’m not talking about that copy of The Fellowship Of The Ring that’s been under your bed since you dropped it in the bath circa 1986 (don’t look so embarrassed, everyone’s got one). I’m talking about really old books.

Books as old as baobabs; books that sail through history like galleons, like arks.

I’ve just been to Amsterdam to visit the Embassy of the Free Mind. It’s home to a dazzling collection of occult books, manuscripts and artworks, including the famous Ritman Library Collection. Kid in a sweet shop? You bet.

But in addition to its permanent collection, the Embassy is currently also hosting a special exhibition on Kabbalah & Alchemy. This show brings together books from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, all beautifully displayed, all shimmering with secret knowledge.

I’m not often lost for words, but I don’t know how to begin to describe this exhibition to you. The first printed image of the Tree of Life is there, in a 1516 edition of Gikatilla’s Portae Lucis. There’s a tiny 16th-century Sefer Yetzirah, nestling beside a 17th-century Zohar. There are original manuscripts, prayers, maps of the cosmos. There’s a 1557 Venetian copy of Pico della Mirandola’s Collected Works, a first edition of Paracelsus’s Great Astronomy, works by Luria, Abulafia, Lull, Dee, Agrippa, Valentinus, more Khunrath than you can shake a stick at…

I could go on, but you get the picture. And if the prospect of all that hasn’t already got you licking your screen in excitement, I can’t help you.

The Kabbalah & Alchemy exhibition runs until 16 November at the Embassy of the Free Mind, Keizersgracht 123, Amsterdam. The Embassy is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm, and admission is €12.50. Go.

Tree of Life image from Portae Lucis in the public domain.
With apologies to Paul Cowdell for the blog post title.

Take a peek behind the veil.

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