The History and Meaning of the Apron
By J. S. M. WARD, B.A., F.S.S., F.R.Econ.S.
The apron has had a sacerdotal and religious use quite distinct from Freemasonry as we now use that name. On the monuments of Ancient Egypt a garment, which can best be described as a triangular apron with the point upward, is depicted, in circumstances indicating that the wearer is taking part in some kind of ceremony of initiation. A good example is shown in “Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods,” page 50, but many others could be quoted. In connection with which fact it is interesting to note that in Egypt it was customary to bestow a “collar of office” on those whom Pharaoh desired to honour. Such collars were circular in shape, and in the picture shown here Pharaoh is shown wearing one.
In China, some of the ancient figures of the gods wear semicircular aprons, very similar in general appearance to some Scottish aprons, and I have a photo of one of these “gods” wearing such an apron and making the sign of a well known Higher Degree.”
In Central America the Ancient Gods are constantly sculptured wearing aprons, and a good example is shown on p.238 in “Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods.” Tepoxtecatl, the Preserver, is depicted wearing an apron with a triangular flap, and on his head a conical cap on which is “embroidered a skull and crossbones,” and finally he holds in his right hand a hammer or gavel.
In Peru, also, we find figures adorned with veritable aprons, and before leaving this point it is well to bear in mind that among certain primitive tribes in Central Africa it is customary to invest a candidate with an apron of leaves at his initiation into Manhood.
Finally, it is not without interest to note that the modern Anglican Bishop wears an apron, although it appears to have developed from a long flowing robe somewhat the shape of a cassock.
The Masonic Apron
Although aprons have throughout the ages possessed a religious and symbolic meaning, a fact which was not without influence on the evolution of our aprons, there is little doubt that the masonic apron evolved from those worn by operatives to protect their clothes from becoming soiled.
In medieval days all masons, whether they were Freemasons or Guild Masons, used aprons when at work, and the former also wore white leather gloves to protect their hands from the lime.
Even down to the middle of the 18th century the aprons in use among speculatives differed but little from those used by their operative brethren. These were long, coming down to below the knees, and with a flap or bib to protect the chest. Often they consisted of a hide with legs and tail cut off, the head being retained to form the flap or bib.
Towards 1750, brethren began to decorate these aprons with designs, usually painted by hand and probably at first done by the owner. Examples of these are to be seen in the Library of Grand Lodge, but the important fact we must bear in mind is that there was as yet no definite scheme; each brother, apparently, was a law unto himself, and chose some suitable design with which to adorn his own apron.
In course of time, however, certain designs became popular and tended to become standardised. Among these one group contained the two pillars with the letters which represent them, and in some cases their names were even given in full. In addition, various other emblems, such as squares, ladders and so forth, were mingled with the central motif.
The other main type contained scenes and incidents from the ceremonies, and a fine example of 1790 which is in my possession is illustrated in “The M.M. Book,” published by the Baskerville Press, to whom I must express my indebtedness for permission to include in this article a large part of the interpretation of the meaning of the M.M.’s apron which I wrote therein.
About the time of the Union it was felt that the aprons should be standardised, and the resulting effort is that which we now use, and it is this apron whose inner meaning we shall now proceed to consider. Before doing so, however, it is as well to point out that on the Continent the general style and shape is not always the same as that worn in England; for example, the Dutch wear an apron bordered with black and with a square and compass on the flap, while Scottish lodges each have the right to use different aprons, some employ a tartan, while many have a circular instead of a triangular flap.
When considering the meaning of the English M.M. apron we must recollect that some masons seem to think that its final form was the result of an accident and that there was no deliberate attempt at symbolism. For my part I cannot agree with this view, but on the contrary believe that those responsible for the present design knew quite well what they meant to symbolise, although it is likely enough that among those who “passed it” there were many who had not the slightest idea that it meant anything at all and merely agreed to it because “it was pretty.” But that in no way destroys the fact that the apron, judged by the usual and well established laws of symbolism, does mean certain things, and that the things it implies are most appropriate to the 3rd degree.
Having thus considered briefly the history of the evolution of the apron, let us turn to its symbolic meaning and we shall, I feel sure, be convinced that those who designed it had a much deeper knowledge of symbolism than some modern critics are apt to believe.
Firstly, the colour, which is that of Cambridge University, and likewise that used by Parliament when fighting King Charles, has a much deeper significance than is generally known. It is closely related to the colour of the Virgin Mary, which itself had been brought forward from Isis and the other Mother Goddesses of the ancient world. It is possible that the designers were also influenced by the existence of certain Orders of Knighthood which had their appropriate colours, for the aprons of Grand Lodge Officers have Garter blue, but this blue is also the colour of Oxford, and the colour associated with the Royalist cause at the time of the Civil War. At any rate, it is appropriate that our aprons should thus employ the colours of the two great Universities of England. There is, of course, an exception in the case of the red aprons allocated to Grand Stewards, for which there are historical reasons into which we need not now enter. We may, however, point out that the dark blue aprons of Grand Lodge are often, though erroneously, spoken of as the Purple, indicating a Royal colour, and thereby implying no doubt that Brethren entitled to wear this colour are rulers in the Craft, and represent the masculine element. Light blue, on the other hand, represents the feminine or passive aspect, and most appropriate for the ordinary M.M., whose duty it is to obey and not to command. Indeed, the M.M.’s apron contains other emblems which indicate this feminine aspect. These are the three rosettes, which symbolise the rose, itself a substitute for the Vesica Piscis, and they are arranged so as to form a triangle with the point upwards, interpenetrating the triangle formed by the flap of the apron. The two triangles only interpenetrate half way, therein differing from the double triangles seen on the jewels worn by R. A. Masons, which completely overlap. These two triangles deserve a little careful study. The lower triangle with its point upwards is the triangle of fire, the emblem of Shiva, and the symbol of the Divine Spark. The triangle made by the flap of the apron, which has its point directed downwards, is the triangle of water, and is thus to some extent representative of the Soul. These two triangles are within a sq., the emblem of matter, and therefore of the body, and so we see that the M.M.’s apron symbolically represents the triune nature of man, whereas the R.A. jewel (the only high degree jewel which may be worn in a Craft Lodge) has these two triangles within a circle, which is the emblem of the Infinite. In this case the triangle of water presents the preservative aspect, the triangle of fire the destructive aspect, the point or eye at the centre the creative aspect, and the circle the everlasting nature of the Supreme Being. There is therefore a curious correspondence, and also a marked difference, between the jewel of the R.A. Mason and the apron of the M.M.
Viewed from another standpoint the apron has another set of meanings. The triangle represents Spirit, and the Sq matter. The flap forms a triangle entering into the sq., and so depicts the entry of Spirit into matter, and there foreman. The E.A.’s apron should have the flap pointing upward, indicating that the divine wisdom has not yet truly penetrated the gross matter of our bodies. This custom is unfortunately going out of use in modern Masonry, which is a great pity, as undoubtedly a valuable lesson is thus lost. The F.C. has the flap pointing downward for several reasons. Firstly, to indicate that wisdom has begun to enter and therefore to control matter; secondly, to represent the triangle of water and thus indicate that Soul and Body are acting in unison; thirdly, because this triangle is the emblem of Vishnu the Preserver, and so emphasises the fact that the aspect of God taught in this degree is the preservative aspect, whereas the addition of the three rosettes in the third degree shows, not only the union of Body, Soul and Spirit but also that the great lesson of this degree is the importance of the Destructive side of the Deity, or, as we may prefer to call it, the Transformative side.
What, however, of the two rosettes worn by the F.C.? Firstly, they stress the dual nature of man, and have a very clear reference to the two pillars. Similarly, no doubt, they indicate that the F.C. is not yet a complete and united being; Body and Soul are in union, but unlike the M.M., these two are not in complete accord with the Spirit. Thus we obtain correspondence between the knocks of the F.C. and the two rosettes. Furthermore, the triangle is incomplete, showing that the F.C. is not yet a complete F.M., and this correlates with the position of the Square and Compasses when taking the obligation in the F.C. Degree.
Two other features of the apron must also be considered. Firstly, the tassels, which appear originally to have been the ends of the string with which the apron was bound round the waist. There is little doubt that in the 18th century the aprons had not the present symbolic tassels, but were fastened round the body in a very similar way to that in which the E.A. and F.C’s aprons are to this day. It is interesting to note in this connection that the actual aprons worn by the officers of Grand Lodge for the year, as distinct from the Past Grand Officers’ aprons, have no tassels at all.
In the course of years, no doubt, the ends of the strings were ornamented by tassels, and to this day the aprons of the Royal Order of Scotland are bound round the body by an ornamental cord with tassels, which are tied in front in such a way that the two tassels stick out from underneath the flap. These tassels, when the final form of our aprons was fixed, were separated from itself, becoming as we now see simply strips of ribbon on which are fastened seven chains. When this change took place it is clear that those who made the alteration deliberately chose the number 7; and intended thereby to convey a symbolic meaning. There are, of course, numerous symbolic meanings of the number 7; for example, it represents God and Man, Spirit and Matter, etc.
Naturally they had to have two tassels to balance, and it would have been very inartistic to have had four chains on one tassel and three on the other, and so it would be unwise to lay too much stress on the number 14, which is the sum total. We may regard it merely as a curious and interesting coincidence that the body of Osiris was stated to have been set into 14 pieces. But in addition to these details as to the historical development of the tassels, we must not forget that in many of the 18th century aprons the two pillars are depicted.
These aprons were usually decorated by paintings on the leather, and varied considerably from Lodge to Lodge, but one of the most usual kinds of decoration, as previously indicated, included the two pillars, and the remembrance of these may very probably have influenced those who designed our present apron, in which case the two ribbons would represent them.
The modern arrangement by which the apron is fastened, namely, a piece of webbing with a hook and eye attachment, gave a fine opportunity for some really profound symbolism; and I feel certain that it was not accident which led to the universal adoption of the snake to serve this purpose.
There are two kinds of symbolism attached to the snake in all ancient religions. Firstly, the snake as the enemy of man, and therefore as the representative of the powers of evil; and secondly, the snake as emblem of the Divine Wisdom. "Be ye wise as serpents” does not refer to the craftiness of the Devil, but to the Divine Wisdom itself. In Ancient Egypt, the Soul, as he passed through the underworld, met with serpents of evil, and also with serpents of good. In India, legend tells us of a whole order of beings, the Serpent Folk, who were of a Spiritual nature different from man, possessed their own rulers, and were endowed with superhuman wisdom. Some of these are considered to be friendly to man, while others are hostile. The Sacred Cobra is well known to every student of Hindoo religions, and is essentially good. Actual worship is paid to the Serpent throughout the whole of India and in many other parts of the world, and in the Kabala we get clear traces of the fact that under certain circumstances the serpent is regarded as " The Shining One "—the Holy Wisdom Itself. Thus we see that the serpent on our apron denotes that we are encircled by the Holy Wisdom.
Finally, the serpent biting its tail, and thus forming a circle, has always been regarded as the emblem of eternity, and more especially of the Eternal Wisdom of God. Nor must we forget that the snake is peculiarly associated with Shiva, the Destroyer, whose close symbolic association with the third degree is obvious for many reasons, and in numerous statues He is depicted making the penal sign of a M.M.
Much more might be written on the meaning of the Apron, but we cannot devote more space to it. But in conclusion we must remember that in other degrees there are also aprons, with an appropriate meaning sometimes explained in the ritual, as for example, in the R.A. and in the Rose Croix.
Sourced from the book, ‘The Treasury of Masonic Thought’ compiled by Martin and Callaghan – 1924.