Gerson Digital : Denmark


8.4 Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680)

‘In Amsterdam she was visited by many people, by prophets and prophetesses, even though no one was prepared to follow her completely in her teaching’, said Holberg about the remarkable religious fanatic Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680) [1], who caused a great deal of commotion in the 1670s by her peculiar way of living and her remarkable writings. Even when only four years old, Bourignon was already assiduously searching for ‘the true Christian country’. Later she fled from her native city of Lille, roamed for a long time through Flanders, wanted then to enter of cloister but was subsequently brought home, where she led a most ascetic life. She dressed in garments of horsehair, fasted, put earth and ashes in her food to become ill, slept three hours a night on the bare floor, if she was not on her knees, lost in prayer. Later she lay on a stone in a coffin that she had herself constructed. She went to Flensborg, where the civic authorities forbade citizens to house her and her followers. However, she had by then moved on to Husum, where her house printing press was confiscated by the Duke of Gotttorp in February 1674. In May her books were burned at the command of Christian V, whom she had petitioned in vain. The Gottorp minister von Kielmanseck then saw to it that she was left in peace, but two years later she fled to Hamburg, where she spent several months writing letters and whitewashing the house in which she lived. Because she doubted whether some texts by her hand ought to be printed, she asked God, with whom she had carried on conversations all her life, for advice. He answered: ‘Yes of course! Have them printed. That will see to it that the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven will be preached to the entire world’. In June 1677 she settled for good in East Frisia, where she died in 1680.1 To gain an impression of the religious teachings of Antoinette Bourignon, it suffices to read the titles of her writings.2 Any deeper study of their contents will as a rule prove to be a waste of time.

Pieter van Gunst
Portrait of Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680)
paper, engraving 155 x 217 cm
bottom (positional attribute) : P.P. delineavit. / P. v. Gunst sculpsit
The Hague, RKD – Nederlands Instituut voor Kunstgeschiedenis (Collectie Iconografisch Bureau)

Gelton came into contact with this remarkable woman. A parcel of papers in the Danish Royal Library contains a letter from her dated 23 March 1677, in which, at the earlier insistence of the Danish painter, she explains the difference between ‘deadly sins’ and ‘everyday sins.3 The address on this letter is especially interesting, because it shows that Gelton was in Amsterdam at the time. The address reads:

A Monsieur / Monsieur Gelton Paintre du Roy de Denmark / Pres.en / a Amsterd

The papers also include a notebook with Gelton’s handwriting on the cover. It contains 23 pages with gleanings in the spirit of Bourignon. Found in the back are a religious text and two drafts for a letter by Gelton to Antoinette Bourignon. The second of these may – with some reservations in view of the many deletions and corrections – be read as follows:

Dear mother

You say that you have said in your books or writings that the serpent has raised its head in me, which I have not been able to expel before. Anew I have laid down my ear, my heart, and my soul to listen and steal up on and keep your truths, which have descended from the true word [of] Jesus Christ our saviour God be praised by you for [all] eternity. I now know not what else to desire from myself to improve other than to persist praying for the same spirit from which has flowed the truth in your soul, to approach [it] as closely as may please God to desire from me, from which you may conclude how devoted I wish to remain dearest mother, your least servant in Jesus Christ. T.G.4

The postscript to the first letter is more complete:

your least servant in Jesus Christ […] Toussaint Gelton, painter in the service of the King of Denmark […]5

Antoinette Bourignon’s letter can hardly be construed as an answer to Gelton’s mentioned concept letter. Nor is his letter a response to hers. Gelton’s first sentence must therefore refer to an unknown letter by Bourignon. Both letters therefore presuppose that there must have been others. It follows that Gelton carried on a more extensive correspondence with Antoinette Bourignon than would at first sight appear from the surviving material. Possibly Gelton had no particular reason for writing Bourignon, who attracted much attention and whose ideas and reckless claims left traces in contemporary and later literature. She corresponded with a variety of people and gladly seized any opportunity to vent her opinions.6

On the front of the notebook with religious texts and drafts for letters, Gelton wrote:

Given to Hugo van Lightenberg the French coat with silver buttons and my black worsted coat with cloak plus an old doublet / the carbine with the carrying strap / a medal of Christina with the gilded King of Sweden with a jabot for his [Van Lichtenberg’s] daughter.7

Perhaps Gelton had financial reasons to part with his coat, suit, cape, doublet, carbine and medal. If Queen Christina of Sweden was intended, this could indicate that Gerson worked for her, whether during her stay in Sweden from 1660 to 1661 or in Hamburg in 1661, or else in Hamburg in 1668 (the year Gelton was in Amsterdam), after she had paid a last short visit to her fatherland while on her way to Rome.

Among the other contents of the parcel is a letter from Antoinette Bourignon to David Kuyper, whom Gelton, with whom all these papers must have originated, appears to have known.8


1 Das ausgeführte Leben der Jungfrau Antoinette Bourignon, printed as fourth volume of Das Leben der Jungfrau A.B. theils durch sie selbst, theils durch einen von Ihren Bekandten erzählt, Amsterdam 1684, 549. Johannes Moller, Cimbria literata, II, 85-103. Ludvig Holberg, Adskillige Heltinders og Navnkundige Damers sammenlign. Historier (cited from edition Rodes, II, 264; Holberg, who mainly relies on Pierre Bayle’s Dictionaire (1637) I, 645-51, compares her to Jeanne d’Arc and says (p. 271): ‘The only reason that these two ladies are here presented in each other’s company is that they may both be ranked with the great enthousiasts …The first was illiterate and smart, the second was learned and insane’). H.N.A. Jensen, Schleswig-Holsteinische Kirchengeschichte, IV, 33. L.J. Moltesen in Kirkeh. Saml. 4. Række II, 396-430. A. v.d. Linde, Antoinette Bourignon, Leiden 1895, who lists a fair amount of literature, 261-265. Fr. Nielsen in Kirke-Leksikon for Norden, I, 375 (‘One half a hysterical mystic, the other half a devious fraud’).

2 Before Gelton was in Amsterdam, the following books by her hand had come out: Het Licht schijnende in de Duisternissen, I-IV, 1669-72; Het Graf der Valsche Theologie, I-IV, 1670; Het Licht des Weereld, 1671 (Linde ironically entitled his above mentioned book Antoinette Bourignon, Das Licht der Welt); Advertissement geschreven aen alle menschen, die het aengaan mag tegen de Secte der Quakers, 1671; Probier Stein umb das Gold der wahren Liebe, 1676.

3 This letter, to which Mr. Berend, secretary, drew my attention and for which I thank him warmly, is located in the Gl.kgl.Sml.4.1480 and commences as follows: ‘Dear Sir. I thank God that he has acquainted you with his light of truth by means of my writings’. (‘Mijn Heer. Ik dancke God, dat hij u heeft doen kennen sijn Licht der Waarheit, door het middel van mijn schriften’). She further explains that men were created for nothing other than to love God, whose love they must earn and in which they must die to obtain blessed eternal life (‘het Eeuwig Welgelukzalig Leven’), seeing that one should not think that one can become blessed through the merits of Jesus Christ. – ‘And because you ask me what distinction there is between deadly sin and daily sin?’ (‘En om dat gij mij vraagt, wat voor onderscheyd datter is tussche Doot-zonde en dagelijksche zonde?’), she gives as answer: ‘I do not know, Sir, whether you have read in my writings that the essence of all sorts of sins consists of man having withdrawn his affections from God, to invest these in things other than him’. (‘Ik weet niet, mijn Heer, of gij in mijn Schriften gelesen hebt, dat het wesen van allerley zonden bestaat, in dat den mensch sijn genegentheden van God aftrekt, om die te stellen in andere dingen buyten hem’). It is this turning away ‘from the divine Intentions that creates sin; be it deadly or daily, to the degree that the inclinations of men are strongly or weakly attached to objects outside God’. (‘van de Goddelijke Voornemens maakt de Zonde; dewelke doodelijk of dagelijx is, naar mate dat de genegentheden van den mensch sich sterkelijk of sachtelijk hechten aan Voorwerpen buyten God’). Later, as part of an exposition on the situation in heaven, she explains that the soul will be close to God but that one ‘must not imagine that God (as kings do) has chosen one son to be his noble attendant and the other to be his cooking servant, since God does not single out people (‘moet sick niet inbeelden, dat God [gelijk de Koningen doen] den eene son verkosen hebben om sijn Staat-jonker te wesen, en d’ander om sijn kocke-knecht te zijn; dewijl dat God geen uitnemer van personen is.’) – See there, dear Sir, the distinction between deadly sin and daily or common sin. If you care for your Salvation, then try to avoid the one as much as the other’. (‘Siet daar, mijn Heer, het Onderscheyd van Doot-zuonde en Dagelijksche of gemeene Zonde. Indien gij uw Heyl bemind soo tracht also seer d’een als d’ander t’ontgaan’). After a few Biblical passages she concludes her letter by praying to God to have him, Gelton, avoid both kinds of sins so that he may gain God’s Love. So that they may both praise and thank Him until eternity.’ In the meantime I remain yours fondly disposed in Jesus Christ. The 23rd of March 1677. Anthoinette Bourignon (‘ondertusschen dat ik blijve Uwe Welgeaffectioneerde In J. Christo Den 23.n Maart 1677 […]’). The signature is autograph; on the back of the letter is a red wax seal, on which is depicted the Savior enthroned in an aureole. He makes a blessing gesture with the right hand and holds a heart with a cross in the left.

4 ‘Lieve moeder, Vw sacdt dat ghij gesagdt hebt in vwe boeken of geschriften [geest] in my het serpent den Cop vertreden dien ick niet heb kenne te vooren vedrijven: al neuw ick heb nedergelijdt mijn oor, mijn hart, en mijn Siel om te luijsteren te bekruijpen en te vadtten om te behouden vwe waerheden die gedaelt sijn vt het ware woort [van] jesu Christo onsen verlosser godt sij gelooft door vw in eewighijt ick [ne]uw niet wetende wadt anders te begeeren in mij selven te verbeteren als daes in te volharden biddende om met den selven geest daer door de waerheyt ut vwe Siele gevlogdt is mijn Siel so na te vereenigen als godt sal believen van mij te begeeren, waer vijt ghij besluijten kent hoe ick genegen blijf te wesen liefste moeder uwe minster diennaer jn jesu Christo. T.G.’

5 ‘uwe minster diennaer [originally: ecter degen] am jesu Chr wöl [?] Toussaint [originally Toussainct]. gelton schilder in dienst zijnde van den Connik van deenmorken amhoch … [?]’.

6 That she did wish to know with whom she was dealing is clear from a small letter in the mentioned package in the Royal Library. It reads: ‘I wish to know your age, nation and religion, whether you are married and whether you have the time to do something in God’s Honor’. (‘Ik wensch te weten uwen Ouderdom uw Natie en Relige; of gy getrouwt zijt, en of gy det tijd hebt, om iets te doen ter Eeren Gods’). As mentioned, Gelton’s birthdate is not known. Antoinette Bourignon must have assumed that he knew no French, as she had her letter to him translated into Dutch. That he pronounced his own name with a Dutch nasal sound may be deduced from its spelling in the Royal Accounts, where it is written as ‘Geltung’ until 25 October 1678 and only subsequently as ‘Gelton’.

7 ‘gegeven an Hugo van Lightenberg de fraense rok met sülvre knopen en mijn swart kleet van grofgrijn met de mantel noch aen out wambet / de karbijnder met de draghbant / een medalie van Christina met de vergulde koninck vann Schweden met de bef voor sijn dochter’. In the original text Rasmussen makes some minor mistakes in the translation.

8 Kuyper was a horticulturalist. Linde, op.cit., 178. The letter, which is dated 7 June 1676, is a Dutch translation of the French original that is reproduced in Antoinette Bourignon, L’appel de Dieu, Amsterdam 1682-84, II, 103-109.

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