Temple symbolism

Many Freemasons don’t like the term “temple”, naming is “working place”, while others refer to “temple” (or “lodge”). Be that as it may, many of you may be familiar with a decoration similar to that above. This is the “blue temple” of the famous Masonic building at the Lakenssestraat in Brussel, Belgium. If I’m correct, this is what it looks since 1910. In the same building is also the famous “Egyptian temple” which is much bigger.

The symbolism can be interpreted as ‘heathen’. The checkered floor (mosaic pavement) could refer to the ploughed field and thus the earth. Above is the starry sky. The Greater Lights (candles) referring to Wisdom, Strength and Beauty can be reminiscences of Odin (Wisdom), Thor (Strength) and Freya or Freyr (Beauty) who in ancient times were portrayed on poles. Other people see clear references to Mithraic temples, but with the Germanic explanation, it would be an ‘indoor outdoor temple’. A question that has played through my head for a while is: how did this design come to be? Who came up with it? Can we find out what inspired the person(s) who made the first design?

As you may know, initially Freemasons met in public places. They rented rooms in taverns. Even the “premier Grand Lodge” didn’t have a place of its own like many lodges of today do. When they decided to change that somebody beat them to it with the idea. In 1765 the first known strictly Masonic building was built in Marseille, France. Unfortunately this is about all the information I have of this building, let alone that I’ve found images on which we could check if that building already had the starry sky for example.

More famous, and thus better documented, is the Freemason’s Hall in London.

In 1775 the premier Grand Lodge purchased a house fronting the street, behind which was a garden and a second house. A competition was held for the design of a Grand Hall to link the two houses. The front house was the Freemasons’ Tavern, the back house was to become offices and meeting rooms. The winning design was by Thomas Sandby.

Thus says Wikipedia (1). Later this original building has been replaced twice. Do we know what the first building looked like? Wikipedia has indeed an image of “Grand Hall, Freemason’s Hall, London (Designed by Thomas Sandby and built in 1776)” (2).

More decorative than symbolic at first sight. According to the Wikipedia page about Sandy (3): “The Hall was extended in the 1820s by Sir John Soane”. This extension is called “Soane office” and obviously, is not a rework of the Grand Hall. Also, in Soane’s design, nothing obviously symbolic, but in an office, this wouldn’t have been logical.

So when did the first temples with starry skies et al start to occur? This question is more easily asked than answered. Looking online I have found a 1853 building in Birmingham (UK) with a starry sky and a 1842 New Zealand building. These are both many years after the start of the (re)building of lodge buildings.

In 2005 a book was published called Masonic and Esoteric Heritage (4). The (then) director of the library and museum in London, Diana Clements, wrote about “The English Grand Lodge as a patron of the arts”, a text about the architecture of the Freemason’s Hall.

She describes that “[b]y the late 1760s Grand Lodge was having to consider how the distinguish itself from an increasing number of rival organisations.” So plans for a building came up. Clements describes Thomas Sandby, some of the “decorations and furniture” and later John Soane, but nothing that indicates if any of the rooms was decorated with stars.

Andrea Kroon, heading the organisation that published the book, has a text about “[t]he material culture of Freemasonry in the Netherlands”. There is a part with the promising title “The earliest images of lodge interiors”. Here we learn that when a room no longer had to be furnished for every meeting, some elements became permanent in the new rooms. The clearest example: the two pillars alongside the entrance. They used to be only on the tracing board, now you could walk between them. There is an image of a 1736 drawing which shows the masters chair containing a sun, a moon and a globe. The chair was in use in a lodge in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. We know who made the drawing, not who designed the chair.

The three candles around the tracing board (that we now call Wisdom, Strength and Beauty) can already be seen on the famous 1745 French drawing of an initiation.

There are some other old images, but none with the elements that I’m after and before we know it, we’re in the 1900’s.

Maybe Kroon did put us on a trail when she described how the pillars on the tracing board were ‘materialised’ in the room itself. Let’s follow the trail of tracing boards.

In 1766 the second edition of the French “exposé” Mahhabone was published. As frontispiece it has an image which has many elements that we will later find on tracing boards. Later the stars would often be around the moon (referring to the night sky), but here the stars seem to be all round the image itself.

Then of course we have the sun and the moon, the pillars and the checkered floor. This gives the design a bit of a below (checkered floor) and above (sky) idea that is not always that present on early tracing boards, but it is on many contemporary designs.

Tracing boards went from simple drawings of symbols to elaborate paintings with dramatic colours and design.

Now I hear you think: but these two developments (moving to dedicated rooms and the development of the tracing board) were almost simultaneous? When lodges met in public places, it was practical to have things set up without too much fuss. Tracing boards were painted on the floor with chalk or in sand. Members of the premier Grand Lodge thought it would be a good idea to have more permanent pieces that they only had to lay on the floor. This (according to some) was one of the reasons that some lodges went to found the rival Grand Lodge of the Antients, suggesting that the drawing of the board on the floor was also a practice in operative times and which they weren’t ready to say goodbye to.

This story suggests that the move from drawing and erasing the boards being replaced by drawings that could be reused, predates the moving to more permanent housing.

These early tracing boards were most likely collections of symbols without a whole lot of design. However, the design on the cover of Mahhabone probably didn’t drop from the sky. Then again, the oldest known tracing boards are of around 1800, so indeed, around the same time as the ‘move inwards’. Probably the developments of the two were similar, they influenced each other or perhaps even, they went together. The tracing boards became more elaborate and nice to look at, the temple rooms did as well and we see symbols appearing on both.
A very nice book about tracing boards is Julian Rees’ by the way (5)

Should we conclude that temple design we use today grew out of the development of tracing boards and that the temple furniture can only be explained ‘in a heathen way’ accidentally?

There is another lead though. In the famous 1730 ‘exposée’ Masonry Dissected there is the following question and answer:

Q. – What Covering have you to the Lodge? 
A. – A clouded Canopy of divers Colours (or the Clouds.)

Q. – Have you any Furniture in your Lodge? 
A. – Yes.

Q. – What is it? 
A. – Mosaick Pavement, Blazing Star and Indented Tarsel.

Q. – What are they? 
A. – Mosaick Pavement, the Ground Floor of the Lodge, Blazing Star the Centre, and Indented Tarsel the Border round about it.

So even when there were no dedicated Masonic rooms, here we have a description of what later such a room would look like. This “canopy” isn’t mentioned in any of the other “Old Charges”. A “Square pavement” is already mentioned in the Edinburgh Register House Manuscript of 1696 and several of the other Old Charges though!

This also reminds of other indications that the lodge was held outside. “a day’s Journey from a burroughs town, without bark of a dog or crow of a cock” (Edinburgh Register House 1696, also in Chetwode Crawley 1700 and Kevan 1714), “on the highest hill or Lowest Valley of the world without the crow of a Cock or the bark of a Dogg” (Sloane 1700), for example (6).

So the new question is: if even before the premiere Grand Lodge there are descriptions indicating that lodge-rooms mimicked being outdoors, why weren’t the first chances to use that symbolism in dedicated spaces used? Who came up with it? Were the Old Charges the inspiration and most of all: whose?

Of the Old Charge we could pose that some reflect the working of “operative” lodges which can be traced back to guilds, so there may be out ‘heathen link’. That doesn’t really explain why almost over half a century later the symbolism started to appear in temple designs and that exactly the inspiration was. If this was indeed quotes such as the above in Old Charges (or these quotes remaining in later catechisms), we may have a flint trace to olden days.

I would still love to know when this design started to appear!

(1) Freemason’s Hall London, accessed 25/02/20201

(2) Source

(3) Thomas Sandy, accessed 25/02/2021

(4) Masonic and Esoteric Heritage. A New Perspective for Art and Heritage Policies, Den Haag 2005, ISBN 908077782X (see here)

(5) Tracing Boards of the Three Degrees in Craft Freemasonry Explained by Julian Rees, 2015, revised edition 2019, isbn 1845497457

(6) http://theoldcharges.com/ (in combination with Google a very helpful website)

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