Masonic Art and Artifacts
Jim Tresner, 33
Book Reviews Editor for the Scottish Rite Journal

Editor’s Note:  Publication information has been carefully checked but is subject to change. Before ordering, we recommend you contact the publisher.

It takes a rich and deeply rooted organization to inspire works of literary and musical genius, like Goethe’s Werther or Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with the insights of its philosophy and, at the same time, to inspire artisans of diverse crafts to decorate homes and common articles of daily life with its symbols. But, regarding the latter, that is exactly what Freemasonry has done as the following books illustrate.

Washington Allston: Secret Societies and the Alchemy of Anglo-American Painting by David Bjelajac, hardbound, 239 pages, b&w illustrations, $65.00, Cambridge University Press, 40 W. 20th Street, New York, NY 10011 Tel 800-872-7423

I’m still trying to learn how to “look” at paintings. The skill has not been easy to acquire, and I shamefully admit a fondness for Victorian “problem” paintings--a fact which my friends who know art forgive me, but which they regard as being at about the same level as eating peas with one’s knife. So I am glad when I find a book which helps me understand an artist.

This is a fascinating book. Although Professor Bjelajac has found no evidence that Allston himself was a Mason, it is clear that many of his patrons were. More than that, however, Dr. Bjelajac shows how the alchemical themes, colors, and treatments used by Allston fit into the tradition of the so-called “ancient mysteries” which fascinated many Masons in the 1800s.

This is not an especially easy book to read, but the information repays the effort. To demonstrate, consider this brief passage: “Allston’s Uriel expressed a Masonic universalism, which claimed to encompass all Christian sects and denominations as well as the hermetic and Jewish cabalistic traditions. Uriel in the Sun immersed beholders not only in the alchemy of color and light but also in history’s inter- generational chain of prophets, magi, and other seekers of divine wisdom descended from Biblical origins.”

The author has done his research on Masonry in the late 1700s and 1800s, and he presents a great deal of information on the less mundane aspects of the Fraternity. The book would be worth buying for that alone.

But there is much more here, both about Masonry and about art. I wish, however, that there were more illustrations and that they were in color. Also, I wish the author had assumed his audience would be made up of less knowledgeable readers than art experts (an assumption which would have been fully justified in my case), but these are minor caveats. The book is a good addition to any fairly sophisticated Masonic library and a rich source of very interesting information on Freemasonry and art. Many Masons, for instance, do not realize how wide a range of articles for daily life have been decorated with Masonic symbols. Especially in the 1800s, Masonic designs were even used by non-Masons. The rest of the books in this review will provide a good sampling of these treasures.

Material Culture of the American Freemasons by John D. Hamilton, 32, hardbound, 307 pages, b&w and color photographs, $75.00, University Press of New England, 23 South Main Street, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755

Pricey book, this, but worth the money. Hamilton provides descriptions and photographs of engravings from books about Masonry, jugs decorated with Masonic symbols, patents--indeed a very wide range of artifacts. There are chapters dedicated to Lodge furnishings, tracing boards and charts; fireplaces, stoves, lighting, and related paraphernalia; regalia, jewels, and swords; documents; ceramics and glassware; and artifacts related to funeral and burial customs. There is carefully researched and written textual material in each chapter which explains the nature and uses of the objects and places them within their historical contexts. A landmark book when it was first printed in 1994, it is still a first-rate addition to a Masonic library. Collectors, especially, will want to own this handsome volume.

Far less expensive, but very much worth having, are two museum books (reviews following) published by the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum of Our National Heritage, in Lexington, Massachusetts. I can’t give these little gems the space they deserve, but I think you will find them enjoyable and useful. Order from: Publications Dept., Museum of Our National Heritage, PO Box 519, Lexington, MA 02173 S&H $3.50 for up to three books, Tel 617-861-6559 Fax 617-861-9846

Fraternally Yours: A Decade of Collecting by Barbara Franco, paperbound, 80 pages, b&w photographs, $14.00

This book is useful for many reasons. It gives good thumbnail sketches of many of the different fraternal organizations which flourished in America in the 1800s and helps to put them in a historical perspective. It also contains 96 photos of regalia, badges, furniture, china, personal effects, and the like, all decorated with fraternal emblems, mostly Masonic.

Bespangled, Painted, and Embroidered: Decorated Masonic Aprons in America, 1790-1850 by Barbara Franco, paperbound, b&w and color photographs, $7.00

The title tells the story. This is a collection of some interesting and beautiful Masonic aprons with some excellent textual descriptions. The book places the aprons in the context of American decorative arts.

I’ve mentioned the following Masonic Service Association booklet before, but it is too useful a publication not to mention again in the context of this review.

Artifacts and Gadgets by H. Wallace Reid, Masonic Service Association, 8120 Fenton Street, Silver Spring, MD 20910-4785, paperbound, b&w photographs, $1.50 + $2.50 S&H for orders up to $5.00 Tel 301-588-4010 Fax 301-608-3457 (Ask for a catalog. You will be surprised at the number of great publications offered by this fine association.)

The author, Ill. Bro. Reid, S.G.I.G. in South Carolina and Grand Minister of State of The Supreme Council, 33, presents a photographic collection with notes of such things as fobs, tumblers, and a very wide range of Masonic “goodies.” There are Square and Compasses postage cancellation stamps, from the days in which each postmaster carved his own cancellations, to a wide variety of jewels, badges, watches, and other items. Fascinating!