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The Material Culture of Freemasonry

By Adam G. Kendall


“A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
--Albert Camus

For more than 300 years, Freemasonry has inspired elaborate rituals – and scholarly ruminations upon their true meaning. The fraternity offers an initiatic system of degrees, based upon a foundational moral code that is defined through architectural and aesthetic principles. Initiates learn to express the moral code of Freemasonry via the detours of art.

During every Masonic ceremony, the candidate is introduced to an array of architectural tools that derive symbolic meaning through a legend concerning the construction of Solomon’s Temple. From a very early period, Masonic ceremonies required visual cues for instruction. Symbols were first drawn upon the floor, then upon convenient canvases, and later upon framed boards. These same symbols were painted and printed upon Masonic aprons, or fashioned into decorations for jewelry, metal and stoneware, paintings, and a variety of other keepsakes.

Masonic art represented the imagination and skill of its artisan and the Mason who commissioned the work. For example, a decorated Masonic apron would include symbols important to its wearer, while the representation of these symbols would reveal the skill of the maker. Both gentlemen’s location, era, school, and, often, ethnic culture would be represented. Each artifact reflected not only a local custom, but also trends popular within a specific culture, and simultaneously, within the fraternity. As an example, an apron made in the Mohawk River Valley in 1800 by a Palatine German would present a variety of Masonic influences and could be considered a valuable example of historic folk art. The same can be said about other items made for, and by, the fraternity. Even mass-produced regalia, ritual art, and tchotchkes from Freemasonry’s golden era are hallmarks of bygone times when fraternal organizations were important components of society—particularly in the United States.

Much as a cultural anthropologist would examine an artifact’s importance and use for a particular civilization, studying the material culture of fraternal orders helps reveal a better understanding of their development. Art demands an audience. While some Masonic art has been sensibly hidden from the uninitiated, from the very beginning, Freemasons relished in publicly displaying their symbols. This dual nature of Masonic art—public, yet private—allowed brethren who came across it in the outside world to identify it as Masonic, interpret its symbolic language, and display a tantalizing sense of arcane mystery to the uninitiated in their midst. In this way, Freemasonry has capitalized on its claims of antiquated wisdom, fostering a sense of culture and art within the boundaries of its institution, with symbols serving as methods of expression and instruction.

There still is a rapt audience for Masonic art and symbolism. Many prospective members’ first contact with Freemasonry is through its material culture. The antiquated style with which Masonic art and symbols are crafted often seem to be preserved within a mythical age; their strangeness draws an almost immediate intrigue. And, their impact is undeniably visceral. Understanding Masonic artifacts can lead a lodge to understand not only Freemasonry, but also their own place within it. Lodge brothers, young and old, can participate in this endeavor, thus increasing the pride and identity of the lodge.


Tips for Displaying Masonic Artifacts

If your lodge is interested in curating a display of Masonic artifacts, these helpful tips can give you a starting place. (Please note that in addition to the suggestions below, lodges should develop and follow a preservation plan. For assistance regarding preservation, consult the Masonic Library and Museum Association at masoniclibraries.org/exhibittips.php)

    1. Determine what to display

    Consider what type of archival materials will be most interesting to your members. If your lodge has a large variety of items, you may wish to curate multiple exhibits throughout the year. Some exhibit ideas include:

  • Your lodge’s collection of a particular item, such as Masonic aprons or rare books.
  • A collection of items from a particular time period, such as the 1900s.
  • A collection of items donated by a single benefactor
    2. Explain each item’s meaning

    Your lodge’s displayed collection should be meaningful to a generally unfamiliar audience, such as prospective members or other visitors to your lodge. To help make these objects accessible, try the following:

  • Research the item’s history to learn more about the time period in which it was created, and any special meanings of symbols during that time period. Display an explanation of each artifact’s meaning alongside it to help viewers recognize and understand its symbolism.
  • If an object was used in a ceremonial manner, give a brief description of how it was used. (If something had a ritual use, simplify to say – “Used in a symbolic manner in the Master Mason Ceremony,” and so forth.)
  • Avoid over-complicated Masonic nomenclature and abbreviations that would be unfamiliar to a non-Masonic audience; however, resist the temptation to oversimplify or blend honorifics with other organizations. (For example, a lodge master is not a club president.)
  • Although descriptions should explain symbolism, try to keep descriptions short to avoid overwhelming the viewer.
    3. Create an appealing display

    If the exhibit is presented in a way that captures visitors’ attention, it will be more successful. Here are ideas to consider when arranging your display:

  • Avoid overcrowding. Fewer objects combined with a thorough description will be more meaningful to viewers.
  • Pay attention to how the archives are arranged. The display should present the items in a professional manner that is engaging and not distracting.

Editor's note: Adam G. Kendall is a past master of Phoenix Lodge No. 144 in San Francisco. A member of the Grand Lodge Masonic Education Committee, he previously served as collections manager of the Henry Wilson Coil Library and Museum of Freemasonry in San Francisco.

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