About Symbolism
By W. Kirk MacNulty, 32°










The symbols used in 18th-century Masonic tracing boards are references to the vast body of literature and philosophy which documents Renaissance thought.

Masonic Tracing Boards are training devices. In the earliest days of speculative Masonry, the Master would sketch designs on the floor of the Lodge using chalk. Then he would talk about the drawing during the meeting. During the course of the 18th century, the drawings were transferred to "Tracing Boards" which are pictures, one per Degree, that encapsulate the symbols of each of the Degrees. The Boards to which we will refer are English.

Speculative Masonry started in the 1600s, and its symbols are references to that vast body of literature and philosophy which documents Renaissance thought. In the Renaissance, the dominant metaphysic was Judeo-Christian monotheism with an admixture of Classical thinking. Renaissance philosophers incorporated many Greek (particularly neo-Platonic) and Jewish mystical ideas into their orthodox Christianity. Some of these influences came from the Hermetica which had, itself, been a substantial influence in the formation of early Christian doctrines. Others came from Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of Judaism. This fusion of classical and Jewish philosophy is called the "Hermetic/Kabbalistic Tradition"; and after it had been interpreted in the context of orthodox Christian doctrine, it became the basis of Renaissance thinking. Speculative Masonry dates from the end of the Renaissance (the mid-17th century), and it is no surprise that Masonic symbolism reflects this tradition.

The First degree tracing board, which looks at first glance like a collection of heterogeneous objects, is, I think, a representation of the entire Universe. It is also a picture of a human being standing in a landscape. Neither of these images is immediately obvious, but I think the ideas will become clear.

The central idea of Renaissance thought was the unity of the Universe and the consequent omnipresence of the Deity. This idea is represented by the "Ornaments of the Lodge." The fact that Masonry has gathered these three objects into a single group suggests that we consider them together. The Ornaments of the Lodge are the Blazing Star or Glory, the Checkered Pavement, and the Indented, Tessellated Border; all refer to the Deity. The Blazing Star or Glory is found in the Heavens at the center of the picture. It is a straightforward heraldic representation of the Deity. Look at the Great Seal of the United States on a dollar bill, and you will see the Deity represented there in the same manner. The Checkered Pavement represents the Deity as perceived in ordinary life. The light and dark squares represent paired opposites, a mixture of mercy and justice, reward and punishment, passion and analysis, vengeance and loving kindness. They also represent the human experience of life, light and dark, good and evil, ease and difficulty. But that is only how it is perceived. The squares are not the symbol; the Pavement is the symbol. The light and dark squares fit together with exact nicety to form the Pavement, a single thing, a unity. The whole is surrounded by the Tessellated Border which binds it into a single symbol. The Border binds not simply the squares, but the entire picture, into a unity.

The idea of duality occurs throughout the Board: from the black and white squares at the bottom to the Sun and Moon at the top. In the central area of the Board, duality is represented by two of the three columns; but here the third column introduces a new idea. The striking thing about these columns is that each is from a different Order of Architecture. In Masonic symbolism, they are assigned names: Wisdom to the Ionic Column in the middle, Strength to the Doric Column on the left, and Beauty to the Corinthian Column on the right. How shall we interpret these Columns and their names?

One of the major components of Renaissance thought was Kabbalah. The principal diagram which is used by Kabbalists to communicate their ideas is the "Tree of Life." The column on the right is called the "Column of Mercy," the active column. That on the left is called the "Column of Severity," the passive column. The central column is called the "Column of Consciousness." It is the column of equilibrium with the role of keeping the other two in balance. The three columns all terminate in (depend on) Divinity at the top of the central column. Referring to the columns on the First Degree Tracing Board , note that the Corinthian Pillar of Beauty is on the right; in the classical world the Corinthian Order was used for buildings dedicated to vigorous, expansive activities. The Doric Pillar of Strength is on the left; the Doric Order was used for buildings housing activities in which discipline, restraint, and stability were important. The Ionic Pillar of Wisdom is in the middle. The Ionic Order is recognized as an intermediate between the other two and was used for Temples to the rulers of the gods who coordinated the activities of the pantheon. The Three Pillars, like the Tree of Life, speak of a universe in which expansive and constraining forces are held in balance by a coordinating agency.

The Universe of the Renaissance philosophers consisted of "four worlds." The Kabbalistic representation of this idea is shown in the figure above by the four large circles denoting four "worlds." They are the "elemental" or physical world, the "celestial" world of the psyche or soul, the "supercelestial" world or spirit, and the Divine world. These same levels are represented on the First Degree tracing board pictured on the front inside cover of this issue. The Pavement represents the "elemental," physical world; the central part of the Board, including the columns and most of the symbols, represents the "celestial" world of the psyche or soul; the Heavens represent the "supercelestial" world of the spirit; and the Glory represents Divinity.

These ideas describe the "landscape." Where is the man?

Another important Renaissance concept was that of a Macrocosm (the universe as a whole) and a corresponding Microcosm (the human individual). The idea is that the universe and human beings are structured using the same principles (both being made "in the image of God"). Consider the Ladder. It extends from the Scripture on the Altar to the Glory which represents the Deity; and in the Masonic symbolism, it is said to be Jacob’s Ladder. We consider the ladder together with another symbol, the point within a Circle Bounded by Two Parallel Lines, which is shown on the face of the Altar.

These symbols are discussed together because in many early Masonic drawings they appear together as if they have some connection. (See the illustration from Masonic Miscellanies, 1797, at the head of this article.) Consider the Two Parallel Lines first. They, like the Doric and Corinthian columns, represent paired opposites, active and passive qualities. In Masonic symbolism, they are associated with the Saints John; the Baptist’s Day is mid-summer, the Evangelist’s is mid-winter.

Now, this Point-within-a-Circle-Bounded-by-Two-Parallel-Lines, together with the Ladder and its three levels, reveals a pattern very similar to the three columns. There are three verticals, two of which, the Lines, relate to active and passive functions while the third, the Ladder between them, reaches to the heavens and provides the means "by which we hope to arrive there." The ladder has "three principal rounds" or levels, represented by Faith, Hope and Charity, which correspond to the three lower levels of the four-level Universe we observed earlier.

Both the Macrocosmic "Landscape" and the Microcosmic "Man" share the fourth level of Divinity, represented by the Blazing Star, or Glory. Taken together the Ladder and the Point-within-a-Circle-Bounded-by-Two- Parallel-Lines represent the human individual made "in the image of God," according to the same principles on which the Universe is based.

A Mason is sometimes called "a traveling man." One of the Masonic catechisms gives us an insight into this term. "Q. - Did you ever Travel? A. - My forefathers did. Q. - Where did they travel? A. - Due East and West. Q. - What was the object of their travels? A. - They traveled East in search of instruction, and West to propagate the knowledge they had gained." Notice the cardinal points of the compass on the Border of this Tracing Board; they define the East–West direction in Masonic terms, and, in doing so, they describe the nature of the journey to which the new Mason apprentices himself. That journey from West to East is represented, symbolically, by the progress through the Masonic Degrees; and it is, in fact, the ascent up Jacob’s Ladder—one of the "Principal Rounds" for each Degree.

The notion of a "mystical ascent" was part and parcel of the Hermetic/Kabbalistic Tradition. It is a devotional exercise during which the individual rises through the worlds of the soul and the spirit and at last finds himself experiencing the presence of Deity. Some of these ascents are deeply Christian in their character. In De Occulta Philosophia, Agrippa "rises through the three worlds, the elemental world, the celestial world, the supercelestial world...where he is in contact with angels, where the Trinity is proved, ... the Hebrew names of God are listed, though the Name of Jesus is now the most powerful of all Names." (Frances A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, London, RKP, 1979, p.63)

The Second degree tracing board shows a familiar pattern: two columns which have opposite characteristics, and between them a staircase, a form of ladder. We cannot investigate this symbol here because of space limitations (see Heredom, vol. 5, 1996, for a fuller explication), but we know we are to climb this staircase. The picture summarizes the Renaissance idea of the approach to Deity as an interior journey.

On the Third degree tracing board, the grave probably does not refer to physical death. During the Renaissance there was much discussion about "the Fall of man" and its effect. "The Fall" seems to refer to some event by which human beings, who were at one time conscious of the Divine Presence, lost that consciousness. After "the Fall," ordinary human life, as we live it on a day-to-day basis, is "like death" when compared to human potential and to a life lived in the conscious awareness of Divine presence. The grave suggests such a "death" to be our present state. The acacia growing at the top of the grave suggests that there is a spark of life which can be encouraged to grow and refers to the possibility of regaining our original Divine connection.

The view of the Temple in the center of the Third Degree Board shows "King Solomon’s Porch," the entrance to the "Holy of Holies." The veil is drawn back a little offering a glimpse into that chamber where the Deity was said to reside. This suggests that at the end of the journey from West to East some process analogous to death enables the individual to experience the Divine presence. After this process has occurred, he lives once more at his full potential. Again, I think that this refers neither to a resurrection after physical death nor to a life after physical death; both of which are the domain of religion, not Masonry. Rather, it refers to a psychological/spiritual process which can occur, if it be God’s will, within any devout individual who seeks it earnestly and which I believe it to be the business of Freemasonry to encourage. After all, we claim to be Freemasons, and this is that Truth, the knowing of which "make[s] you free."

This article has been shortened by the author from the original published in Heredom, Vol. 5, 1996.

W. Kirk MacNulty
was Initiated, Passed, and Raised in Carson Valley Lodge No. 33, Gardnerville, Nevada, in 1961. He was Master of the Lodge of Living Stones No. 4957, Leeds, England, in 1980, ’81, and ’92, and in 1996, the Founding Master of the Lodge of the Nine Muses No. 1776 in the District of Columbia. He is a Past Provincial Junior Grand Warden; Yorkshire West Riding. Other affiliations include: Scottish Rite, Valley of Nashville, Tenn.; Letchworth Chapter No. 3505, London; Alexandria–Washington Lodge No. 22 and Mt. Vernon Chapter No. 14, both in Alexandria, Virginia. Publications include: Freemasonry: A Journey Through Ritual and Symbol and The Way of the Craftsman.

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