The subject of marks forms an interesting study in the history of Freemasonry that begins in much earlier times with the ancient cathedrals. In the days of operative builders, a mason’s mark was defined as a figure, an emblem, or some other arbitrary symbol chiseled on the surface of a stone for the purpose of identifying his own work and distinguishing it from that of other workmen.
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to visit the cathedral site of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, built-in the mid-15th century. Looking closely at the walls, carefully inscribed masons’ marks can be seen. These were made by the stonemasons who cut the blocks that make up the columns, piers, windows and arches of the chapel. The masons’ marks at Rosslyn Chapel stood out to me as strikingly well crafted. That much was clear.
What wasn’t clear to me is why did these stonemasons leave these marks? Was there hidden meaning in their unique symbols or were they drawn for practical purposes?
In the everyday world “making your mark” is a phrase that means you have created a lasting impression on someone or mankind itself. You have added something positive that will be remembered after you pass to the Grand Lodge Eternal above. We all want to make our mark on this world, a legacy—to know that our life mattered.
Often, however, “making a mark” has become diluted as a common household phrase. Has it has lost its deeper import? What purpose do masonic marks serve, or do they?
The purpose of masons’ marks in medieval buildings, especially churches and cathedrals, is not entirely known. Researchers have offered many hypotheses, but the problem is not easy to unravel. In time and place, marks had several different uses.
Many scholars think that marks were placed on stones for solely practical reasons. It was much like a signature. The mason, would either be assigned or choose a mark, and that would be his professional symbol. He would chisel his mark into each stone he worked on and this allowed an accurate account of his work and payment.
Others believe that there may be more to these marks than mere signatures; they believe that the masons were trying to carve their messages into stone so that they could not be lost to future generations and those who came after them. Given that many of the masons’ marks may be repeated, and not related to an individual, there may be some truth to this claim. However, no one has managed to decipher what those messages might mean.
One hypothesis about Rosslyn Chapel is that the hanging cubes were designed to compose a musical score. The patterns reveal a piece of music waiting to be played and a musical code. Tommy and Stuart Mitchell, both musicians, wrote a book called “The Rosslyn Motet” and they claim that actual sounds are carved into the stones. This particular theory created some controversy and has been debunked by many writers who think there is no pattern, musical or otherwise. Thought – provoking, nevertheless.
As you can imagine, there is no shortage of theories as to the meaning that may be embedded within the enigmatic symbols.
How does a Freemason today apply these ancient methods?
In current times, a Freemason who has advanced through the degrees of York Rite learns the significant purpose behind a masons’ mark and to mark well. What does it mean to mark well? Probably, the most stunning symbol encountered in these rites is that of the Keystone, which is a symbol of completion.
The teaching of the Keystone forms an interesting link to the cathedral builders of ancient times.
Brother Albert G. Mackey writes:
“The stone placed in the center of an arch which preserves the others in their places, and secures firmness and stability to the arch. As it was formerly the custom of Operative Masons to place a peculiar mark on each stone of a building to designate the workman by whom it had been adjusted, so the Keystone was most likely to receive the most prominent mark, that of the Superintendent of the structure.”
The Keystone in the symbolic arch, signifies the completion of the individual Temple which each craftsman is erecting. It is the Temple not made with hands. With the keystone, we see that “leaving a mark” means putting a stamp on the future, and making a lasting contribution to coming generations.
In symbolic terms, there are many examples in the world of people who have left a mark on a beautifully wrought stone. The life works of Brother Annie Besant, a woman instrumental in founding Co-masonry, comes to mind. Her contributions display masterly skill in execution, and creating something useful and important for humanity.
How does a Freemason make such a mark in the world? In other words, what is the service that is beckoning? How does an individual handle the resistance to following that impulse? What happens when we say yes? What happens when we say no?
I have found the answers to these questions are not simple, only slightly less arduous that deciphering the Voynich Manuscript. Cracking the code requires discernment which will occasionally have you up nights. Perhaps you have seen the design of something and try to shape your service from that thought or memory. And then you fail when trying to follow it through. Or more often, the truth is inconvenient and so you don’t even pursue it. Discernment is demanding work. It’s also prone to error and imperfect.
Fortunately, the Craftsman learns that all “true” service, no matter how imperfect, is acceptable. He learns the lessons of patience, endurance, faithful service and perfect humility. The reward of true merit for the workman comes when egoism and pride fall away.
The Freemason marks well when he aligns with the plan and purpose of the Great Architect who has a greater design or pattern. The chisel is used as an instrument of refinement to further shape and polish that stone to fit into the Temple’s Plan with right exactitude.
What were the ancient builders of old thinking when they carved their marks on beautiful temples and cathedral buildings? And today? What do masons’ marks reveal?
Only each craftsman can know the mystery for himself – his true legacy – before reaching that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.