The Eye of Providence: A Journey into Masonic Symbolism

October 01, 2015

The Eye of Providence: A Journey into Masonic Symbolism

Shawn E. Eyer

Each year, the Memorial Association creates a commemorative holiday ornament featuring a theme from Freemasonry, George Washington, or the Memorial building itself. This year, our holiday ornament is The Eye of Providence (see page 16 for more information). It is a symbol recognized by Freemasons everywhere as a beautiful representation of the watchful care of the Supreme Architect. But its history as a symbol reveals ancient roots that antedate its inclusion in our Craft by millennia. Learning more about those roots can help us to better comprehend what our ancient brethren understood when they contemplated this beautiful emblem.

Drawn from the Great Light

One of the most extensive sources of our symbolism is the Great Light in Masonry. There, we find several references to the all-seeing eye of the Supreme Being, especially in the books classified as “wisdom literature.” Some of the earliest are from the Book of Psalms. The majority of the songs in this book were written between 800 and 600 BC, and were used in the ceremonies held at the Temple of Solomon. The symbol recurs numerous times in these beautiful ancient hymns:

The LORD is in his holy temple, the LORD’s throne is in heaven:
his eyes behold, his eyelids try, the children of men.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon them that fear him,
upon them that hope in his mercy . . . . 

The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous,
and his ears are open unto their cry.

Here, the divine gaze is celebrated as profoundly concerned with justice. According to the Psalmists, the Supreme Being observes his creation from the supernal throne in the celestial Temple, gazing with approval on those who are aware of His presence and who follow the moral law. Similar uses of the symbol of the eye of God may be found in the Book of Proverbs, which introduces the idea that “The eyes of the LORD preserve knowledge.”

Another book—The Wisdom of Ben Sira, also known as Ecclesiasticus—may be one of the most important sacred sources for the symbolism with which we are so familiar. It was written in the second century BC, and it reiterates the theme of omniscience:

And his eyes are upon them that fear him,
and he knoweth every work of man.

Later, Ben Sira uses language that more directly evokes the common iconographic depictions of the All-Seeing Eye:

. . . the eyes of the Lord are ten thousand times brighter than the sun, beholding all the ways of men, and considering the most secret parts.

This image of the divine gaze as more luminous than ten thousand suns, is the source in biblical literature for Western iconography’s depiction of the eye of God within a brilliant glory.

The theme of the divine gaze is found in the New Testament as well. The Letter to the Hebrews says:

Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

The Emblem in Art & Architecture

The Eye of God became a popular theme in the art of the Late Renaissance, usually appearing surrounded by rays of light (in reference to the words of Ben Sira). The Eye was often depicted as contained within a triangle, with the three sides of the triangle referring to the three divine persons of the Trinity.

During this period, the symbol appears frequently in church architecture and religious paintings. It also is found extensively in emblem books. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, small books containing symbolic engravings and short poems were extremely popular in Europe. Filled with allegorical images that required effort to understand, these books made prodigious use of the All-Seeing Eye as a symbol of the awareness of God.

Early Masonic Appearances

Whether from the biblical references, the artistic and architectural examples, or the frequent depiction in emblem books, it is easy to see that the All-Seeing Eye would have been a familiar symbol to the early Freemasons.
The earliest example of such a symbol just might be on a personal seal of Bro. Robert Moray (1609–1673), a Scottish soldier and natural philosopher who was initiated into the Craft in 1641. A partial wax impression of one of his seals is in the shape of a circle, with an eye at the center, radiating in every direction to the circumference. Was it a Masonic reference? There is no way to be certain, but some historians find it quite possible.
The symbol appears in an unmistakable way in the engraved frontispieces of two books of Bro. Fifield D’Assingy (1707–1744): An Impartial Answer to the Enemies of Freemasonry (1741) and A Serious and Impartial Inquiry Into the Cause of the Present Decay of Free-Masonry in the Kingdom of Ireland (1744). Each depicts the All-Seeing Eye with rays descending. The 1744 example, which is particularly well-drawn, seems to show a group of Freemasons on their way to the lodge under the protection of the divine gaze.

Although the All-Seeing Eye was clearly a symbol in the Masonic vocabulary by this time, it was a rather esoteric one, as it does not appear to show up in the Masonic writings of the era. It was an image that many Masons recognized, but did not much speak about either in their rituals or their interpretations of Masonry. That begins to change in the 1770s, during the ascendancy of the great Masonic lecturer, Bro. William Preston (1742–1818). The symbol appears in numerous places and forms in Preston’s degree lectures. For example, in his closing ceremony of second degree, the brethren are admonished:

Then let us consider, that wherever we are, and whatever we do in the character of craftsmen, God is with us, and his all seeing eye observes us: that acting in conformity to our tenets we may declare in his presence that we have endeavored to discharge our duty with fervency and zeal.

The above example was, obviously, not for publication at the time. But other Masons were mentioning the All-Seeing Eye in print. In 1766, Bro. Isaac Head gave a Charge in the Scilly Isles of England, in which he asked that the brethren remain “ever mindful that the Eye which pervades the immeasurable Regions of Space, and sees through the thickest Darkness, is ever present with us.”

Many are aware that the common American lodge working came to us from William Preston via Bro. Thomas Smith Webb (1771-1819), who began publishing an American adaptation of Preston’s book. The 1802 edition of Webb’s Freemason’s Monitor  documents how the All-Seeing Eye was taking its permanent place among the hieroglyphical emblems of the third degree. In Webb’s version, we are urged to remember that:

. . . although our thoughts, words, and actions, may be hidden from the eyes of man, yet that ALL-SEEING EYE, Whom the Sun, Moon and Stars obey, and under whose watchful care even Comets perform their stupendous revolutions, pervades the inmost recesses of the human heart, and will reward us according to our merits.

Reading these words, so familiar to us as American Freemasons, it is easy to see how the symbol of the All-Seeing Eye has retained its ancient meaning from the wisdom literature of the ancient Hebrews, through its role in European art and architecture, into the traditions of our Craft.

Perhaps it is ironic that, today, it is looked upon primarily as a Masonic emblem—even by those outside of our Fraternity. For, in truth, the All-Seeing Eye is a profound symbol that belongs to everyone who perceives the reality of an omniscient and just Supreme Being.

Shawn E. Eyer is the Director of Communications and Development of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association.