The Sun as a Symbol in Freemasonry: What is it trying to tell us?

The Sun as a Symbol in Freemasonry: What is it trying to tell us?

“There is nothing so indestructible as a symbol, but nothing is capable of so many interpretations.”  –  Count Goblet d’Alviella

What does a symbol have to do with you or me? Well, it’s possible that it doesn’t have anything to do with us.  On the other hand, the meaning behind a symbol just might be pretty significant. To know what a symbol means (or at least what we think they means) is one of the important speculative studies in Freemasonry. The teachings of the craft are said to be “illustrated by symbols.”

What are symbols? The definition of a symbol is something that represents something else through resemblance or association.  As the well-known saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words! There are everyday symbols and then there are the more universal and esoteric symbols which we are mainly concerned with as Freemasons.

Esoteric symbols are those with a hidden meaning. They have been used throughout time in the great spiritual traditions to guide seekers after truth. Esoteric symbols both conceal and reveal the truth.

For example, I consider myself to be a seeker of truth.  The other day, I chanced upon the following passage about the esoteric symbol of the sun.  It set me thinking on a number of different levels:

“The blazing star, or glory in the center, refers us to the sun, which enlightens the earth with its refulgent rays, dispensing its blessings to mankind at large and giving light and life to all things here below.” – Masonic Lectures

little23915567_706115002931639_2286788907160304511_nWhat are we to make of this statement? Why would the blazing star, usually depicted as a five-pointed star, be a symbol of a sun, too?  And if it is, what is different about this sun?

While the answers to these questions remain a mystery, some of us may know that the blazing star makes its appearance in several of the masonic degrees, and the pieces to the puzzle reveal more of the secrets at each stage.

How, then, do you study a symbol? How do you know if what you are interpreting is truth?

A Symbol: Exoteric, Conceptual, and Esoteric

I have found with symbols, it’s possible to go overboard with analysis.  Especially as Freemasons, we love to “speculate.”  We open the whole thing for scrutiny and dissect every little piece to see where it leads.  We use lots of words while trying to nail things down: “This means this” and “that means that.”

Unfortunately, in my opinion, when we over-analyze, especially early on, we may unintentionally rob the symbol of its power. In the end, we may have analyzed it to death.

The good news.

resizedimages (1)The process of symbolic analysis, while wrought with paradox, is actually doing something beneficial to the mind.  The best summary of this idea I found in a theosophical article of the Beacon Magazine (1939) written by Alice Bailey. The article details how the mind is actually being trained when we study symbolism.

Bailey gives three ways that a mind can analyze any symbol.

  1. Exoterically: This concerns the concrete or objective appearance, its form and structure.
  2. Conceptually: This concerns the concept or idea which the sign or symbol embodies.
  3. Esoterically: This concerns the energy or feeling that you register from the symbol.

Studying a symbol in three ways, she says, is activating the mental mechanism on all three levels: concrete mind (exoteric), higher mind or reasoning (conceptual) and the intuitional mind (esoteric). The goal is to arrive at a synthetic concept.

Why does the process matter?  Bailey says that practical work with symbols over time serves to bring a student closer to truth.  It lifts an individual out of their emotions; it develops clarity of perception; it energizes the mental life; it shifts the focus and attention and consciousness out of the world of illusion into the world of ideas.   How then could Freemasons apply this technique?

Let’s take an example.

Freemasonry: The Point within a Circle 

bigcircumpunct-symbolThe sun is often symbolized by a symbol called the circumpunct.  For those of you who’ve read the novel by Dan Brown called The Lost Symbol, you probably are familiar with what a circumpunct is.  For those who aren’t familiar, it’s simply a point within a circle.

There are hundreds of things the circumpunct can represent, anywhere from the “Eye of God” to the “Google Chrome” icon that I use to launch my search engine.  Using the Bailey technique, the circumpunct could be studied and reflected upon by an inquiring student and hopefully, after a little while, reveal a synthetic understanding of what it means.

Freemasons for centuries have taken a stab at analyzing the circumpunct.

W.L. Wilmshurst, for example, says this:

 “As the sun is the centre and life-giver of our solar system and controls and feeds with life the planets circling round it, so at the secret centre of individual human life exists a vital, immortal principle, the spirit and the spiritual will of man. This is the faculty, by using which (when we have found it) we can never err.”

In other words, Wilmshurst (and many other masonic scholars) see the point within a circle to be where we, as Freemasons, stand.  It is the point from which we cannot err. The point is timeless, eternal, subjective, immeasurable, invisible, absolute. For these reasons, it is often attributed to Deity and the Sun.

big Slades masonic manAs Freemasons, the study of symbols helps us to make sense of ourselves in relation to the universe. Planetary symbols such as the sun, moon, stars, and blazing stars inspire the contemplative mind to soar aloft and read the wisdom, strength and beauty of the Great Creator in the heavens. They challenge us to dig deeper on matters of eternal significance.

Sun or blazing star?  I’ve learned there seems to be a certain humility in recognizing that we may never fully understand a symbol in a complete way, one that allows us to cross it off the list and totally explain its meaning.

How do you know if what you interpret in symbols is true? Perhaps the better question might be:

Where is it true?

If I may,

“Truth is within ourselves. It takes no rise

From outward things, whate’er you may believe.

There is an inmost centre in ourselves,

Where truth abides in fullness…

– Robert Browning


Note: The last image is an engraving by Alexander Slade dated 1754,  titled “A Free Mason Form’d Out of the Material of his Lodge.” For further study, see the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

 

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

The Tracing Boards of John Harris: A Masonic Legacy

When I joined Freemasonry, I realized the ceremonies were full of symbols meant to allude to greater meanings. One of the items that caught my attention during my initiation was the tracing board or picture in the Lodge room which displays the symbols for the degree. Later I learned that artist John Harris (1791- 1873) was responsible for creating the design that I saw displayed. My curiosity was forever peaked to better understand John Harris and his symbolic art.  Although John Harris was well-respected during his life, I soon discovered that in recent times he has been labeled “a forgotten artist.” As an advocate for the arts, I immediately felt a resonance with this hard-working Freemason who seemingly never got his due.

What can we learn from his life story?  Is he really a forgotten artist?

Harris joined Freemasonry in 1818 during a time of exciting cultural developments. As part of the new organization of the United Grand Lodge of England (U.G.L.E.) in 1813, British Freemasons were moving away from tavern culture. The masons, now owners of beautiful massive buildings, were able to contemplate adorning them with permanent furnishings such as antique art or elaborate pipe organs.

Part of the standardization occurring in the furnishings of new buildings was that each of the Lodges were to own a set of tracing boards. Upon entering the Lodge, Harris very quickly became fascinated with the concept of the tracing boards and started drawing designs almost immediately. His talents, as a painter, facsimilist, and architectural draughtsman, fitted him perfectly for the task.

1809 Microcosm_of_London_Plate_038_-_Freemasons'_Hall

1809 London Freemason’s Hall

In 1823, Harris dedicated a set to Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England.  The Grand Master immediately recognized Harris as a very talented young man. It is assumed that he commissioned Harris to make a standard official model for each degree.

These developments helped to standardize the designs. Until that point, there had been no consistency in the way the boards were painted.  It was not unusual for individual Lodges to have a variety of symbols and designs and employ their own artists.

 Why are symbols on the tracing boards important to the Freemason?

Albert Mackey, in his book on the Symbolism of Freemasonry, suggests that the symbols that are illustrated for each degree are a key to its mystery.

He writes:

To study the symbolism of Masonry is the only way to investigate its philosophy.

In the masonic teaching, symbols are a way to investigate the deeper meanings because they speak to the whole human being, not only the limited waking intelligence. It is said that a symbol will communicate its “message” even if the conscious mind remains unaware of the fact. The power of the symbol does not depend on it being understood.

Harris spent his whole life painting and studying the symbols of the Craft. As he furthered his masonic career, his designs evolved accordingly.  His life was his art.

Studying the boards of Harris really made me think about the question:

Can you separate the artist from the art? 

1825_tb_harris_fc_500_860 (1)

1825 Second Degree

Some say art and an artist’s biography are not so easily separated.  What I found striking about the Harris boards is how much his art did reflect his life. The first designs he created in 1820, just two years after he joined, were very simple.  I imagine he was still unraveling all the deep teachings of Freemasonry.

The 1825 designs convey more depth of experience. His life at that time truly reflected a fruitful craftsman. He was forging his fraternal ties with the Grand Master, a relationship which seemed to blossom and mature over time. The Grand Master loved the “Harris Boards,” and every Lodge wanted a set of the “approved” designs. Harris could hardly keep up with the orders from the Lodges and also kept very busy as a facsimilist at the British Museum.  His client list consisted of some of the major collectors in rare books in England, many often royalty.

A 1846 advertisement praises the skill of Harris:

The Craft Tracing Boards have been of essential service in promoting instruction among the Society at large; they are eagerly sought after every place where Freemasonry is cherished.

Relentless demands and grueling labor ensued for the next couple of decades.

John_Harris_3rd_1850

1850  “Open Grave” Third Degree

In those days, there were no photocopy machines so each one of the boards for each of the lodges had to be hand painted.  It was not unusual for a lodge to wait longer than a year once they ordered a set from Harris.

The last board he designed was in 1850 for the third degree, referred to as the “open grave” design.  This was a period in his life he found himself reduced to the lowest state of poverty and distress due to partial blindness. In 1856, he went completely blind and was paralyzed from a stroke the same year. The darkness of the 1850 painting gives a feeling of emotional starkness not experienced in any of his earlier designs.  Although seemingly dismal, the sheer intensity of the painting does suggest something exceptional.

One of his friends comments:

At the age of sixty-six, he is deprived of the only means he possessed of supporting himself and an invalid wife.

In 1860, Harris moved with his wife to a masonic home in East Croyton for aged Freemasons and their widows. In earlier times it was named “The Asylum for Worthy, Aged, and Decayed Freemasons” but known today as “The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (R.M.B.I.).” Harris found an outlet for his art in the East Croyton home and used his remaining years there to write poetry to raise money for the R.M.B.I. He answered his summons to the Grand Lodge Eternal on December 28, 1873.

From my research, I believe that Harris in the truest sense embodied the teachings of Freemasonry. His strength sustained him to endure in spite of overwhelming circumstances of unforeseen misfortune. He persevered until the end, laboring ceaselessly in the tasks that the Master had confided to his care. In my opinion, he is far from being a “forgotten artist.” His light continues to shine in one of the most treasured of all lodge furnishings.

In the words of Beethoven:

Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.


Note: Images for Harris Tracing Boards were retrieved on the website of Harmonie Lodge No. 66.