by Agne Cimermanaite

Down an Amsterdam canal, on Keizersgracht 123, sits a tall Dutch-style mansion acknowledged as one of the top 100 Dutch heritage sites. This magnificent building is named The House with the Heads because of the facade decoration of six heads representing Roman gods. It was designed in 1622, at the outset of the so-called Dutch Golden Age, and attributed to the local architect Hendrick de Keyser.

Amsterdam, Keizersgracht 123 | Author: Andre | License: cc-by-sa-2.0.

The House with the Heads

In the 17th century, the building was a cultural centre where visitors, including Spinoza himself, discussed art, science and philosophy. By inviting the most important scholars of the age to discuss theological and social issues, the De Geer family, who owned the house, made it a nexus for the exchange of ideas. This tradition lives on to this day, where the building consists of Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, a unique collection of rare and mysterious books, and a museum known as The Embassy of the Free Mind.

The place itself is exceptional: The House with the Heads has only ever been partially accessible to the public throughout its centuries-old history. From the 1811 art auctions were  organised, including one in which Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was sold.

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp | Source: Wikipedia | License: public domain

Before plans of the building’s demolition in the early 20th century went through, it was decided to fully restore the house and transform it into the Amsterdam Music School.

Nowadays, this enchanting place in the heart of Amsterdam preserves once prohibited old books of wisdom and free thought. The Embassy of the Free Mind is an international meeting place and study room managed by The Worldheart Foundation which also hosts a museum library that contains rebellious ideas from centuries ago and makes them finally available to the contemporary public.

The Embassy of the Free Mind: highlights of the mysterious museum

The collection includes books and writings which are 12,000 year-old globally acknowledged and historically important stories, Western texts up to 2,000 years old, and 400 years worth of Amsterdam-based writings. Over 2,000 books have been digitalised and are available to the public online.

The collection of 25,000 forbidden books deal with hermetic wisdom, man, nature, universe, alchemy, mysticism and other philosophical themes. 

The museum’s reading room is open to all those interested in books of hermetic origin and first thoughts of human experience. Some of the older texts are from Hermes Trismegistus, John Dee, Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Adriaan Koerbagh. Hermes Trismegistus, the “thrice-greatest Hermes” was the founder of alchemy and is the claimed author of the Hermetic Corpus, a series of sacred and antique texts central to Hermeticism.

Scrolling down the list, you’ll find old volumes about the immortality of the souls and strange books on Sufism and Qabalah. 

The collection of prohibited books often includes significant images that can be considered more meaningful than words. And this is the beauty of the museum — there are explanations of these important pictures and their very details that tell stories and reveal the history of humanity.

If it wasn’t a real place, one might presume that it came from the imagination of world-famous writer Dan Brown (the bestseller author took part at the inauguration of the embassy on Nov 1, 2017). The House of Living Books is open to everyone who is interested in reading about centuries-old wisdom, be they scholar or layperson. Dan Brown conducted research for his books at the library and donated €300,000 to the digitalisation of the library. On the occasion he spoke of his “great honour to play a role in this important preservation initiative that will make these texts available to the public.”

Amsterdam, the first “free city”

An old nickname for Amsterdam points to its status as a place of freedom. Jewish inhabitants hundreds of years ago gave different names to the German and Dutch cities they inhabited, shortening them to Mokum followed by the first letter of the city’s name. Mokum, translated from Yiddish, means “safe haven” or “place”. Thus Amsterdam was Mokum A, alphabetically and spiritually the first ‘free city’.

In the past, the Netherlands was one of the first places that rebelled against imperial overlords as well as the Catholic Church in the form of the Reformation. Elsewhere in Europe religion was significantly important. Already in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Netherlands had shifted from a theocentric to an anthropocentric world-view. In the 17th century, Amsterdam was associated not only with freedom of religion, but also freedom of the press and of expression. The Netherlands was an escape from prosecution for many freethinkers, a haven where they could express their minds at ease and write books of wisdom that we cherish and immerse ourselves to this day.

Eye for the world. The visionary thinker Jacob Böhme

In his homeland of Germany, Jacob Böhme was constantly persecuted and forbidden to write. For this reason, many of his writings were published in Amsterdam.

Jakob Böhme (1575–1624)  Portrait von Gottlob Glymann ohne Jahr | Source: Wikipedia | License: public domain

Böhme opposed war, violence and discrimination against minorities in his work. Clearly the German thinker’s ideas and wisdom are still very relevant today. The current exhibition in the Embassy of the Free Mind offers a vision of his ideas and a translated digital version of his first and one of the most important publications Aurora (1612). The book explores ideas of the relationship between humanity and nature, pondering how we, as human beings, are strongly embedded in the universe. Visitors of the museum can immerse themselves in Böhme’s mystical mind and the beautiful imagery his texts conjure.

“You won’t find any book in which you could better discover and investigate the divine wisdom than when you walk in a green and blooming meadow.” (Three Principles 8.12) Basing his views on personal observations of nature and the self, he was assured this outlook was more valuable than any books. The themes of nature, opposition, fall, creation, rebirth and freedom are pervasive in his writings. Why must love and pain, friend and enemy coexist? How did evil arise in the devil, in humans, and in all creatures? What do you think the earth and stars are made of? These are the questions that Böhme asks in his books with the answers explored throughout the exhibition,