The Masonic Landscape.

by R. Haines


The Landscape in the Lodge Room

There is a moment during the process of being made an Entered Apprentice when the initiate realizes that the Lodge Room is something more than merely a space in which Masons meet and work. He is introduced to the Three Lesser Lights on the north side of the Altar, representing the sun, moon and Master of the Lodge. He is shown the cardinal directions under which the Master and Wardens sit. The implied arc of the sun from the nominal east to west reinforces the relationship between the Lodge Room and the solar system. Through this, he can have little doubt that the Lodge Room represents something much larger than the finite space which it contains.

Celestial bodies and the room’s orientation to them are not the only way in which the Lodge Room metaphorically represents and literally relates to the outside world. In some Lodge Rooms, a model ship is mounted on the western wall, adding to the sense of being outside rather than in. The presence of the blocks of Rough and Perfect Ashlar evoke the quarry and the cathedral yard more than the interior of a completed building. The Two Pillars, Jachin and Boaz, are models of the two immense pillars that are said to have stood outside of the First Temple. Smaller versions of Jachin and Boaz stand on the Wardens’ pedestals as well. These all evoke the world outside of the Lodge Room rather than the space within it.

It is in this dual state of inside-outside, microcosm-macrocosm that Masons meet and work. The walls and ceiling are necessitated by the need for privacy and security but those within are inexorably tied to the world without.

The Tracing Board and the World

From the mid-18th century through the beginning of the 20th, depictions of Masonic emblems, objects and motifs on tracing boards were commonplace within the Lodge. The typologies of these depictions fall into two broad categories: that of discrete objects such as working tools, floating on a background of negative space, and that representing a physical setting containing the objects depicted, with perspective fixing the elements in a scene, much like a theatrical set. This latter category is rich with diversity and artistic license.

Among other elements, the most commonly depicted are the pillars Jachin and Boaz flanking the composition, with three steps in the foreground at the bottom and the All-Seeing Eye surmounting the design. Jacob’s Ladder is another common element, as is the tessellated pavement, the blazing star, the sun, the moon, a beehive, a sprig of acacia and the five orders of capitals atop their respective columns.

But on some tracing boards the designs more resemble landscape paintings, with the elements placed in it taking on a narrative effect. One finds clouds, hills, the sea (sometimes with a ship or Noah’s Ark included), sand dunes, rivers, caves, tombstones, pyramids, ruins and trees; palm trees were particularly popular. While some of these are intended to depict specific settings and events such as the temporary grave of Hiram Abiff or the building of Solomon’s Temple, others are clearly flights of fancy or are too obscure to easily tease out the meaning. However, even these depictions are all informed by an understanding of the landscape and man’s relation to it that is inculcated within the higher degrees of Freemasonry.

Just what is it that Freemasonry has to tell us about the landscape and man’s place in it? As with many Masonic teachings, the use of an object, structure or place to serve a symbolic purpose can be rich and varied. Albert Pike’s “Morals & Dogma” gives no less than 62 different spiritual meanings for the sun. Just as art or poetry can find an infinite number of metaphors with which to convey new meaning, Freemasonry encourages men to find moral instruction from their experiences and environment. In the same manner, Freemasonry draws upon a wealth of references from a broad variety of cultures, periods and traditions. This adds to the education of the appropriately engaged Mason and allows for a much richer understanding of the instruction they receive within the Lodge and from Masonic texts.

Why were landscapes depicted upon tracing boards? Was it just for pleasing artistic expression? Or was it to exemplify an ideal landscape – however improbable it might’ve been to create in the outside world – and to suggest to Masons that nature itself, properly arranged and appreciated, has an instructive and edifying effect? Or could it have been an exhortation to Masons that, to properly understand the principles of Freemasonry, it was necessary to experience the world outside, particularly the natural world?

The Ritual Landscape

Freemasonry has a unique relationship with place. The Third Degree allegory is set in a very specific place. As every Master Mason learns, both that legendary place and its symbolic representation in the form of the Lodge Room are one and the same. This is the First Temple, described in the Tanakh and the Old Testament as being built by King Solomon, Hiram, King of Tyre, and Hiram Abiff.

The play begins within the tightly bounded environment of Solomon’s Temple and its gates. As the storyline develops, the characters move outside of those boundaries into the larger world -- the profane world -- which includes the city and its gates, and beyond them, territories extending somewhat to the north, south, east and west. To the southwest, somewhere in the 35 miles between Jerusalem and the eastern Mediterranean coast, is “the low brow of a hill” where Hiram Abiff’s body was temporarily buried.

The implied boundaries of the ritual play extend further still. They are described somewhat vaguely but we know that they include Joppa, which is in modern Tel Aviv, about 30 miles northwest of Solomon’s Temple. Other places referenced (but not visited) in the play include King Hiram’s kingdom of Tyre, about 100 miles north of Jerusalem, Hiram Abiff’s homeland of Naphtali, about 75 miles north of Jerusalem, and Ethiopia, a thousand miles to the south. It is this ritual landscape that is woven into the tapestry of the Third Degree, connecting the room and its occupants not only to a larger world but across the millennia to the ancient past. And to do so, it is necessary to transcend the walls and ceiling of the Lodge Room.

Unlike some elements of Freemasonry whose sources are lost in time, the Hiramic ritual is known to have entered the Masonic canon sometime between 1723 and 1738. This was a time when interest in Egyptian and Greek mythology, as well as the study of Biblical texts as historiography, was intense. At the same time, there was a hunger for a ritual system that could be relevant across denominational lines, as well as to deists and humanists. The story of Hiram inculcated moral virtues within the symbolic vocabulary of geometry and building, while remaining theologically neutral.

Knowing Where we Stand

While the cardinal directions referred to in the Hiramic ritual relate to the story of Hiram Abiff and his assassins’ attempts to accost him at the various Temple gates, those directions extend far beyond the perimeter of the Temple. In Iron Age Palestine, the earth was believed to be flat, as is reflected in the terms used to describe it, such as having “four corners” and being able to see the earth in its entirety from one high point. Within that cosmological model, the directions extended in planes perpendicular to the ground and for an unknown distance, since the earth was supposed to be finite but what lay beyond those finite bounds was unknown.

Since this was before the invention of the geomagnetic compass, the cardinal directions were described and understood in terms of the landscape’s relation to the cosmos rather than to its magnetic poles or its polar axis. The path of the sun and moon helped delineate east and west, even though it was believed that they passed over the earth, rather than the earth rotating around the sun, and the moon around the earth. The location of the north-south axis was extrapolated in the daytime by its perpendicularity to the east-west path of the sun, and at night, relative to the position of Polaris, the “north star”, and the rotation of the other stars around its apparently fixed location.

By the time of the Renaissance, the earth was understood to be a sphere in orbit around the sun. The cardinal directions were still thought to extend in planes perpendicular to the landscape, but those planes followed the curvature of the sphere rather than extending into infinity in straight lines. Both models operated essentially the same for identifying a location two-dimensionally within the landscape, as well as for the orientation of buildings, objects or people within it. And it would’ve been employed by Solomon’s builders in the same way as it is by the architect of a new Temple today.

The two axes that specify a building’s location and orientation are inexorably tied to the landscape. They also tie the landscape to the conceptual axes of north-south and east-west. Further, they locate the landscape within the cosmos. But there is a third axis: that of the vertical. This axis figures prominently throughout the history of spiritual conceptions of place. It is the dimension that cannot be explored from the ground, placing it in the realm of the mysterious. Before the late Renaissance, the dimensions, composition and characteristics of that vertical realm were entirely unknown. Inevitably, this meant that the vertical axis as it extended above the ground was associated with the gods. The story of the Tower of Babel illustrates how man once thought that a tower built sufficiently high could enable him to reach heaven. This is also reflected in the fact that many supernatural beings were described as being able to fly.

The vertical axis extending below the ground was equally mysterious (perhaps even more so for being in darkness), but it could, here and there, be approached. Caves, volcanoes and the sea all extended below the surface of the earth and were therefore considered permeable boundaries or portals into the underworld. Again, most religions placed hell, purgatory or the underworld below the earth’s surface, as with the Jewish conception of “sheol” as the home of the dead. And since the dead were most commonly buried under the earth, humans naturally associated death with the darkness of the subterranean world. These factors caused fear and distaste among the public for anything that lay below the surface of the earth.

The vertical axis has another quality: that of grounding and centering. Although the mechanism of gravity was not understood before the time of Galileo and Newton, humans have always been empirically aware that they can stand upright, but that if they lean too far in any direction, they begin to fall. Also, a person standing or sitting had the perception that the world extended outwards away from them in what appeared to be equal relativity in all directions. The same may be said of buildings, trees and other objects. Being centered with ones foundation on the ground is a position of strength and balance, as well as being a unique point of view.

The Axis Mundi and the Altar

In the Jewish and Muslim faiths, there is a literal center point of the earth. Since, during the foundations of those religions the earth was believed to be flat, “the world” was an extension (or a totality) of the land, or more specifically, the landscape, for the seas were largely considered to be part of the unknown and unknowable. For the Jews this center of the landscape is the Temple Mount, as for the Muslims it is Mecca, specifically, the black stone cube called the “Qaaba”. Wherever a Muslim may be in the world, they are expected to face Mecca and the Qaaba when praying. When participating in the “Hajj”, Muslims walk a circular path around the Qaaba, orbiting the center of their cosmos.

The “Foundation Stone” in the Temple Mount is likewise the center of the Jewish faith and prayers are directed towards it. Like the Qaaba, the Foundation Stone bridges the realms of the sacred and mundane. These are two examples of an axis mundi, or a central axis of the world upon which it rotates and upon which all spiritual significance rests. It is the location where the distance between man and the Deity is believed to be the thinnest.

Other religions likewise have a location, whether real or conceptual, around which their worldview is organized. Mount Hermon was the highest point in the area immediately north of Israel. Its summit was believed by the Caananites to be the axis mundi of their world. During the dates commonly assigned to the building of the First Temple, the dominant god worshipped in Caanan was Ba’al, whose sacred palace was supposedly located on the summit of Mount Hermon.

In Norse mythology, the cosmos was centered around the “Yggdrasil”, an immense ash tree whose branches and roots reached nine different heavens. The ancient Saxons erected a tree trunk in certain locations central to their culture and religion, which they called “Irminsul”. The early Hungarians believed in a centrally-located world tree in whose branches rested the sun and moon. And the Celts of the British Isles likewise worshiped trees called “Bile” (“bil-eh”) that were central to their theology and spanned the heavens and the underworld.

The ancient Greeks conceived of their cosmos as having a central point that was determined by two eagles that Zeus released from the furthest known points of the earth, to fly across the land. Where the eagles met was established as the “navel of the world”. There were other sites in Greece which claimed that title but none more emphatically than Delphi, a site where the veneration of the sun-god Apollo was centered. In Greek, this was called the “Omphalos” and it was not simply a metaphoric navel but a literal one from which the land sprang or grew.

The notion of there being a “center” to the landscape has never left the human conception of his place within the world. We still use (increasingly complex) formulae to locate the “heartland”, where we erect markers and monuments for the education of tourists and the aggrandizement of locals. There are at least two rival claimants to the central point of the United States, and every state and city charts out and proclaims their own particular axis mundi.

This central, fixed point around which the cosmos rotates is also a feature of every Lodge Room, in the form of the Altar. Standing at the crossroads of east-west and north-south, containing the sun and moon, and being the pivot point around which all action takes place, the altar is the Masonic axis mundi. We take our Obligations upon the Volume of Sacred Law that rests upon that center, likewise venerating it as central, immovable and eternal.

The Contemplative Landscape

The earliest recorded examples of speculative Freemasonry took were within the context of the Age of Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was during this era that man began to question the structure that maintained the church and the monarch as absolute authorities. Science began to find its way out of alchemy and into dispassionate empiricism, and philosophers and academics were charting a logical framework within which they could “know” what they knew. The free exchange of ideas was taking place in societies, clubs and taverns, and the printing press disseminated these ideas to men throughout the civilized world.

For the first time since ancient Greece, men’s thoughts turned outward to try to understand his role in society, and inward to try to grasp his own significance. In this way, the processes of the enlightenment took place upon both macro and micro scales. As such, the era might also rightly be called the Age of Contemplation.

It was during this period that men from Britain and elsewhere in northwestern Europe began to venture eastward on what became called “the grand tour. The usual itinerary took them by ship from Britain to the coast of Belgium or France, and by land across the Alps and into Italy, as far south as Naples and Paestum. The itinerary eventually extended to Constantinople and even Greece. The return trip generally included Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. Due to the limitations of transportation and the difficulty of travel during inclement weather, such a tour typically took a year or possibly two.

The British architect and Freemason Inigo Jones had an immense influence upon the development and popularity Grand Tour. He accompanied the Earl of Arundel on what was perhaps the first such expedition, in 1613 through 1614. Since Jones was already a seasoned traveler and an expert on classical architecture, he was the ideal person to guide Lord Arundel through Italy and introduced him to the value of classical ruins in the landscape. Not inconsequentially, Jones was also a highly esteemed theatrical set and prop designer, creating elaborate outdoor settings within the space of the stage.

This was a journey not just of distance across Europe to the historic heart of civilization, but also a journey of the mind, since one was expected to read the Classics, experience different cultures and, perhaps most importantly, to improve ones self by walking through (or sitting in) the landscapes of antiquity. These were considered essential to the proper education of a gentleman.

Beyond being exposed to antiquities, classical architecture and art, acquiring souvenirs and having ones portrait painted in the local landscape, the grand tour had another effect: it exposed young men to two subjects of much discussion in Enlightenment circles: the “picturesque” and the “sublime”. Both are experiences of contemplating a landscape and ones place in it; the former as an instinctive aesthetic appreciation of beauty in nature, and the latter as an emotional response to nature (particularly nature at its wildest), as well as to objects within nature and, in particular, ruins.

The conceptions of these two qualities – the sublime and the picturesque – continued to be developed throughout the latter-half of the 18th century and well into the 19th, reaching full flower in the so-called “Romantic” era. They inspired philosophers such as Burke and Diderot (both of whom were Freemasons), as well as innumerable poets, novelists, painters and composers. Men would visit environments deemed to be conducive to contemplation and would seek to benefit from their positive effects.

While the notion may seem quaint today, it’s grounded in good sense. Humans are deeply affected by their environment and given that fact, being curatorial about the environment one enters into is sensible, especially if a particular effect is desired. We understand this on a subconscious level; it’s part of why many humans feel drawn to forests, cathedrals, parks, ancient sites; even caves or treehouses. It is also why some people may feel an unexplainable aversion to other sites.

The elements of a contemplative landscape were catalogued by those promoting the experience of the sublime or picturesque. Rolling hills backed by steep, craggy mountain peaks to provide a “view” framed by trees around the perimeter, a water source such as a stream or lake to provide reflectivity and movement, and some gently decaying relic of human creation – preferably a ruin, mausoleum or gravestone to remind the viewer of man’s folly, his transience and mortality.

There should also be a sense of wildness that reminds man of his connection to nature. The natural features and the view should possess a scale that reduces the viewer to insignificance in comparison. Ideally, there would be something to suggest both death and rebirth, such as autumn leaves turning color or the heads of snowdrop blossoms poking through the snow. The sun should partially or occasionally be obscured by dramatic clouds. These are some of the recommended characteristics of the sublime and the picturesque that were believed to be in a “morally improving” landscape.

It cannot be surprising that a parallel development took place within Freemasonry, given that the experience within the Lodge Room is equally one of being set in a landscape as it is being enclosed within four walls and a roof. Within that space, the sun and moon are present and their paths overhead are delineated; the sky and stars beyond are implied. The horizon is circumscribed and divided into cardinal points. Within that infinite space, man has a sense of his minuteness on the cosmic stage. The blocks of ashlar remind him of his imperfect state, the work that lies before him in improving his character and ultimately, they suggest his mortality. The flames of the Lesser Lights give the space movement and life. The altar stands in the center with the Volume of Sacred Law atop it, an immovable and immutable axis around which we Masons orbit. And all of this lies under the all-seeing eye of the Great Architect of the Universe, framed by the rays of the sun, reminding man that his thoughts and deeds are observed and judged from the highest point.

Likewise, the same morally-edifying experience may be had outside of the Lodge Room, within the great school of nature. The sun recalls the all-seeing eye of Deity, as well as reminding us of the life-sustaining qualities of nature and of the virtues of regularity. The expansiveness of the view grounds us in our own particular part of the vast cosmos. The contrast of our solitary smallness within the expanse of the landscape encourages humility. Examples of death and decay are ever visible in nature, but so too are those of regeneration and growth, reminding us that, even though our own lives are brief, the essential part of us survives. The presence of other humans within our field of vision reminds us that all men are our brothers to whom we owe honesty and charity. In short, nature, properly approached, provides a complimentary parallel to the moral virtues inculcated within the Lodge Room.

While no one has yet built an ideal, explicitly Masonic landscape following these precepts, it is conceivable that such a setting could be created, given sufficient resources. Unfortunately, since the 19th century, few who possess the necessary resources seem to be interested in undertaking such projects. Perhaps future Masons may take up the challenge.

The Final Contemplation

Much of the body of Masonic thought relates to mortality, both as a destination we must face and as a reminder of our duties to live well and practice charity and brotherly love. European burial customs beginning in the Middle Ages often included memento mori, or explicit and moralizing reminders to the living that death awaited them too, although these were usually confined to indoor representations in paintings, sculpture and sarcophagi. But the last quarter of the eighteenth century saw a unique development of the memento mori within the context of Enlightenment ideals.

Before the eighteenth century, there were three places of interment for the dead. The wealthy or important were typically buried within churches and cathedrals, at considerable expense. Those of more modest means but still of social and religious standing in the community would be buried in the churchyard, at a cost to their family or through a bequest left while alive. After a few decades, their skeletal remains would often be exhumed and moved to an ossuary to make room for more burials. But most people were too poor to afford a church graveyard burial and were relegated to a common pit grave or a potter’s field.

With the population increase during the industrial revolution, there came serious problems with overcrowding of graveyards and common graves, which produced objectionable sights and smells and even outbreaks of cholera and other diseases. This led to the public finding distasteful anything relating to death. Even the most beloved family member would be quickly disposed of and their final resting place avoided as much as possible.

The Enlightenment, led by Freemasons, produced many societal reforms but few were as dramatic as the change in burial customs. To reserve preferred resting places to those few with wealth or power was contrary to the new values of egalitarianism and fraternalism. These men believed that basic dignity was deserved by all mankind, and this was incompatible with ones remains being dumped in a common grave.

Maintaining that dignity, honoring the dead and facing ones own mortality were all facilitated by a complete overhaul of burial practices. Cemeteries were established in areas of scenic beauty, at a distance from cities and towns. Considerable effort was spent in making them aesthetically appealing, hygienic and dignified. Architects and landscape designers labored to produce destinations that were not only suitable final resting places but destinations in themselves for the living, in which to experience nature and contemplate higher things.

Perhaps the earliest example of this innovation was created on the estate of the Marquis de Vouvray, to honor and provide a suitable burial place for his mentor and frequent guest, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Like Rousseau, the Marquis ardently believed in the landscape’s potential for spiritual influence. He wrote “Of the power of landscapes over our senses, and as a result, upon our soul, the composition of landscapes can open the way to the renewal of the moral principles.” Vouvray created a garden with a winding plan and an artificial lake to one side. On a man-made island in the lake, he commissioned sculptor Jacques-Philippe Le Sueur to create a tomb for Rousseau’s remains which he then surrounded by a grove of poplar trees. It is no coincidence that Vouvray, Rousseau and Le Sueur were all Freemasons.

This contemplative landscape became a prototype for similar versions created throughout Europe over the next century. The practice was particularly popular in Britain where enlightened gentlemen –a great many of whom were Freemasons – lavished care (and often fortunes) upon creating the ideal gardens in which to contemplate nature and ones place within it, both as the living and the dead.

Full Circle

In 1777, a Masonic calendar was published with the inscription “Aude, Vide, Tace, Si Vis Vivere In Pace”, Latin for “Listen, watch and be silent, if you would live in peace”. Its shorter form, “Aude Vide, Tace” has become a well-known Masonic phrase. It is the essence of contemplation. By seeing, listening and remaining silent we enter an enhanced state of receptivity to experience and understanding, particularly in nature.

As Freemasons, we are called to contemplation. It is a large part of what we do within the Lodge Room and, as all things learned there, its observance should become so much an indivisible part of our lives that we practice it wherever we may be. The axis mundi within the Lodge Room is the Altar which supports the Volume of Sacred Law, but outside of those confines, its location could be wherever a Mason finds himself. The arc of the sun and moon still pass over him from east to west and, no matter where he is, inevitably he stands at the convergence of that axis and the north-south axis, as well as the vertical axis. With the precepts of the Volume of Sacred Law preserved within him, he is a movable central point of his world. Thus, the Masonic Landscape is equally within the Lodge Room, within nature and within every contemplative Mason.

Sourced from the North California Research Lodge

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