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van Helmont, Jan Baptist

Category: Mystic


Jan Baptist van Helmont (12 January 1580 – 30 December 1644) was a Flemish alchemist and physician. These days academics have classified him as a scientist, but this shows how much understanding has been lost of the symbolism of the times.  He is classified, for example, as "the founder of pneumatic chemistry".  Pneuma is the word used at one time for ‘breath of life’ or spirit.  Helmont had mastered spiritual alchemy.  As such he can be classified as a mystic.

There is even a drawing of and I quote:
The Roman tower of the old church in Neder-Over-Heembeek and house where Jan Baptist van Helmont performed an alchemical transmutation. (Drawing by the architect Leon Van Dievoet, 1963.)”
 In other words here is where he obtained the spiritual experiences he sought.

The Roman tower of the old church
in Neder-Over-Heembeek

There is an added irony to this lack of understanding, as Van Helmont is remembered today largely for his ideas on ‘spontaneous generation’, which is the process associated with the kundalini experience; his ‘5-year tree experiment’, which though very precisely described is probably symbolic; and his introduction of the word ‘gas’, from the Greek word chaos [an alchemical term and also symbolic] into the vocabulary of scientists.

Van Helmont was thus a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he was a mystic and alchemist. On the other hand, he was influenced by the work of those undertaking actual scientific experiments,  men like William Harvey, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon.  He thus combined spiritual alchemy with chemical alchemy.

Van Helmont “had frequent visions throughout his life and laid great stress upon them.” 

His choice of a medical profession, for example, has been attributed to a conversation with the angel Raphael, and some of his writings describe inspiration and wisdom, as  an entirely spiritual phenomenon.

The need for secrecy and its effects


urushibara - Bruges

In order to understand Van Helmont, one needs to also understand the religious restrictions imposed by the Catholic Church at the time. 

Spiritual alchemy was not an acceptable pursuit and was associated with magic and witchcraft.  Van Helmont ‘s pursuit of the spiritual was extremely risky.  Others, less careful, had already been burnt at the stake for practising alchemy of this sort.  As such the documentation of his ‘experiments’ would have had to have been very very carefully phrased to look absolutely valid to a cleric, but understandable to a fellow alchemist.

He appeared to be ‘a faithful Catholic’, but then he would do.  Even with all these precautions he still incurred the suspicion of the Church.  Van Helmont published very little until near the end of his life principally due to the need for precautions, but he also incurred considerable wrath as a result of his first known publication, “Of the Magnetic Curing of Wounds” (1621), which led to trouble with the Spanish Inquisition. In addition to suggesting that saintly relics might display their curative effects through ‘magnetic influence’, he included very uncomplimentary comments regarding Jesuit scholastics. As a result, ecclesiastical court proceedings of one sort or another were pending against him for more than 20 years. 

In order to understand how very ambiguous his works are likely to be let me use one example


Encyclopedia Britannica - Jan Baptista van Helmont Belgian scientist  Written by: Ben B. Chastain

In another experiment, he demonstrated that … a metal was not destroyed by dissolving it in acid. He weighed silver, dissolved it in acid, and then recovered all the original silver by reacting the solution with copper. He also showed, by using iron to recover the copper, that this displacement of one metal from its salt by using a second metal was not because of transmutation, as many had held……. Van Helmont was the first to recognize that many reactions produce substances that are, in his words, “far more subtle or fine…than a vapour, mist, or distilled oiliness, although…many times thicker than air.”


All these terms are symbolic – oil, air, silver, gold, iron …. Not one is a physical thing in alchemical terms.  As such Van Helmont was probably trying to describe to his fellow spiritual alchemists – those who were having no luck with the accepted practises, that this process wasn’t the right one as far as his experiments showed him.

It is noteworthy that Van Helmont refused to discount ‘magical forces’ as explanations for certain natural phenomena. This stance, reflected in a 1621 paper on sympathetic principles, contributed to his prosecution and subsequent house arrest.



As an alchemist, Van Helmont’s initial beliefs were based on the Elements –  Fire, Air, Water and Earth

But given his objectives as an alchemist were spiritual experience he later rejected the ideas of the four elements as being key and instead concentrated on ‘air’ and ‘water’. 

This appears to be meaningless gobbleydook, but it means he rejected the use of the kundalini experience – and thus sexual techniques  - the three principles (salt, mercury, and sulfur) of Arabic alchemists and instead concentrated on the balancing of spirit input and spirit output – spirit input to him was Water [rain, falls, cooling] and spirit output was Air [warm rising].  In other words he tried to use the principles of balance – balancing the intellect and the emotions – the Conscious and the Subconscious.

There are numerous techniques to help with this, but most come within the ‘suppression’ category.  It means furthermore that he was indeed a very mystic mystic, as working out how to do this is not at all easy.  It is the route of the contemplative – but as we shall see his later life suited this style of approach very well, as threats were removed, obligations dispensed with and his family life [love] gave him the basic grounding.  Being under house arrest, for example, is not such an onerous thing for a mystic contemplative.  Your house becomes your retreat - and Van Helmont's house was a fine example of a retreat in its time.


Urushibara - moonlight

Van Helmont described the archeus as

"aura vitalis seminum, vitae directrix" – the 'chief Workman [Archeus] consists of the conjoyning of the vitall air, as of the matter, with the seminal likeness, which is the more inward spiritual kernel, containing the fruitfulness of the Seed; but the visible Seed is onely the husk of this'.

The word husk can mean the body, the husk is thus the shell of the soul. The symbolic term seed in this context means the soul.

According to Van Helmont, the soul had two main parts – the immortal soul and the rest of the soul.  Before the ‘Fall’, the body obeyed the immortal soul, but after the Fall the rest of the soul got in the way and mortal soul then controlled the body.  Spiritual experience required us to get in contact with the immortal soul – restore us to a state of grace.

In addition to the soul, Van Helmont recognised the existence of functions. From these he invented the term blas (motion or activity), defined as the "vis motus tam alterivi quam localis" ("twofold motion, to wit, locall, and alterative").

He gave some obvious examples such as the functions of human beings - blas humanum (blas of humans), and the functions of stars, planets and other heavenly bodies such as meteors - blas meteoron.  It may be noted that the interest in astrology and astronomy at that time made the use of stars an obvious choice.


Genuine chemical experiments

Van Helmont did do some actual chemical experiments as well as his spiritual experiments.  He discovered for example that physical air is composed of several gases and that the  "gas sylvestre" (carbon dioxide) given off by burning charcoal, was the same as that produced by fermenting must, which sometimes renders the air of caves unbreathable.

The Willow tree experiment

Willows are symbolic, trees are symbolic and it is difficult to assess whether Van Helmont’s famous tree experiment was symbolic or actual or even both – the one used to hide what was going on with the other.

He grew a willow tree and measured the amount of soil, the weight of the tree and the water he added. After five years the plant had gained about 164 lbs (74 kg). Since the amount of soil was basically the same as it had been when he started his experiment, he deduced that the tree's weight gain had come from water  - or is that Water? Since it had received nothing but water and the soil weighed practically the same as at the beginning, he argued that the increased weight of wood, bark and roots had been formed from water [or Water] alone.

If this is not a symbolic experiment then clearly this "deduction" is incomplete, as a large proportion of the mass of a real tree comes from atmospheric carbon dioxide, which, in conjunction with water, is turned into carbohydrates via photosynthesis.

But a Tree is not a tree, and this experiment under alchemical symbolism could equally well have been an experiment in energy transference – the transmutation process.


Observations about digestion

Van Helmont wrote extensively on the subject of digestion. In Oriatrike or Physick Refined van Helmont rejected the beliefs that food was digested due to the body's internal heat. If such was the case, van Helmont argued, how could cold-blooded animals live? 

These studies were physical and based on sound observation and were extensions of his medical interest and training, as such we know they are definitely not symbolic.

Through many experiments, van Helmont demonstrated that acid was the digestive element in the stomach and was neutralized by alkali in the intestine and that blood combined with a “ferment from the air,” with venous blood removing a residue that escaped through the lungs. He studied extensively the formation and nature of kidney stones. His theory of “ferments” as the agents bringing about physiological processes is a precursor of the idea of enzymes.


urushibara - Italy

Van Helmont's date of birth has been a source of some confusion. According to his own statement (published in his posthumous Ortus medicinae) he was born in 1577. However, the birth register of St Gudula, Brussels, shows him to have been born on 12 January 1579 Old Style, i.e. 12 January 1580 by modern dating. 

He was the youngest of five children of Maria (van) Stassaert and Christiaen van Helmont, a public prosecutor and Brussels council member.

Encyclopedia Britannica - Jan Baptista van Helmont Belgian scientist  Written by: Ben B. Chastain

Van Helmont was born into a wealthy family of the landed gentry. He studied at Leuven (Louvain), where he finished the course in philosophy and classics, and then flirted with theology, geography, and law before finally taking a doctorate in medicine in 1599. He later referred to his education as “reaping straw and senseless prattle,” gave away or threw away his books, and set out to try to find true knowledge. Van Helmont traveled to Switzerland and Italy (1600–02) and to France and England (1602–05), gaining practical medical skills that he put to use during an outbreak of plague in Antwerp in 1605. It was apparently during these sojourns that he came to know and appreciate some of the theories of the German-Swiss physician Paracelsus. He received several offers—from princes, an archbishop, and an emperor—to become a private physician, but he turned them down, refusing to “live on the misery of my fellow men.”

In 1609 van Helmont married into a noble family, thereby becoming the manorial lord of several estates. He retired to one of them—Mérode, in Vilvoorde—and for the next seven years dedicated himself to chemical research and “to the relief of the poor.” In fact, he spent his life in relative solitude and mostly in peace.



So he was also a good man.

His wife, Margaret van Ranst, and he had several daughters and three sons (two of whom were lost to plague).

The inheritance of his wife enabled him to retire early from his medical practice and occupy himself with his alchemical experiments until his death on the 30th of December 1644.







Van Helmont’s works were collected and edited by his son Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont and published by Lodewijk Elzevir in Amsterdam as Ortus medicinae, vel opera et opuscula omnia ("The Origin of Medicine, or Complete Works") in 1648.

"Ortus medicinae" was based on, but not restricted to, the material of Dageraad ofte Nieuwe Opkomst der Geneeskunst ("Daybreak, or the New Rise of Medicine"), which was published in 1644 in Van Helmont's native Flemish.

His son Frans's writings, Cabbalah Denudata (1677) and Opuscula philosophica (1690) are a mixture of theosophy, mysticism and alchemy.








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