Every Freemason is familiar with the beautiful lessons on the art of architecture that are communicated in the Fellow Craft degree. There, we learn about the origin of stonemasonry through the architectural imitation of ancient wooden buildings: how stone pillars took the place of upright tree trunks, and how the planks that framed these supports inspired the bases and capitals found on stone pillars. In some older versions of our lectures, even more detail is found regarding the ancient origins of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders.
These historical illustrations are remnants of a stage of development within our Craft that is little remembered today. There was a time when, in addition to the physical symbolism of the working tools of stonemasonry and the abstract knowledge of geometry, the study of architecture itself had a role in the lives of many brethren.
Most of us are aware that on the Feast of St. John the Baptist, 1717, the first Grand Lodge came into existence in London. Four of the existing London lodges cooperated to establish it, and it had a transformative effect on Masonry everywhere. One of the early successes of the premier Grand Lodge was the publication of Bro. James Anderson’s Constitutions of the Free-Masons in 1723. This book, which formed the basis for all Masonic constitutions to follow it, reveals a keen interest in the art of architecture. Facing the book’s title page is a beautiful engraving by Bro. John Pine, depicting leaders of the Grand Lodge in an imaginative architectural setting wherein the five Classical orders of architecture progressively approach and frame the foreground.
Turning the pages of this foundational Masonic text reveals a Craft deeply concerned with the history and practice of architecture. There are more than two dozen references to architecture throughout the first Book of Constitutions, where the term is nearly synonymous with Masonry. These references are often unexpected. For example, the tabernacle of Moses is described as a work of architecture. King Solomon is described as “that wisest Man and most glorious King of Israel, the Prince of Peace and Architecture.” In the legends of the first Grand Lodge, the Temple of Solomon was of such inspired architecture that the traveling stonemasons who erected it “corrected the Architecture of their own Country upon their Return.” This idea still echoes faintly in our teachings, but it was a key concept and quite explicit then.
The architectural story in Anderson’s Constitutions culminates in a fascinating development that is seldom discussed today: the celebration of a revived Classical style of architecture coming to England through the work of “our great Master-Mason” Inigo Jones (1573–1652), inspired in turn by the Italian architect, Andrea Palladio. Masons are even surprised to learn of the stance of the Grand Lodge against Gothic architecture, and Anderson describes how the royal patronage of the Craft “recovered” Classical architectures from “the Ruins of Gothic Ignorance.”
For after many dark or illiterate Ages, as soon as all Parts of Learning reviv’d, and Geometry recover’d its Ground, the polite Nations began to discover the Confusion and Impropriety of the Gothick Buildings.
All of this was no mere personal fancy of Bro. Anderson. In the early eighteenth century, England turned to Palladianism in order to establish a new national taste in architecture. The style of Palladio (1508–1580) has been described as the very quintessence of the value of the High Renaissance. Inigo Jones was the first to apply Palladio’s Neo-Classical approach in England, and many Freemasons regarded this as a major improvement and wished to further encourage it. The examples go far beyond Anderson’s Constitutions. Martin Clare, a leading figure in the premier Grand Lodge, presented portions of Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture as lodge education programs. In the oldest surviving Masonic speech, Francis Drake noted that in many lodges, “a lecture on some point of Geometry or Architecture is given at every Meeting.” Edward Oakley, in a lodge speech given in London in 1728, said that
it is highly necessary for the Improvement of the Members of a Lodge, that such Instruments and Books be provided, as be convenient and useful in the Exercise, and for the Advancement of this Divine Science of Masonry, and that proper Lectures be constantly read in such of the Sciences, as shall be thought to be most agreeable to the Society, and to the Honour and Instruction of the Craft.
Two years later, Oakley, himself an architect, published just such a textbook of Palladian architecture for the use of anyone who wanted to study the subject. It was illustrated by Benjamin Cole, another leading Freemason of the day. It’s easy to see how quality architecture was a widespread concern among the early Craft.
It might be little surprise that the early American Freemasons were influenced by these ideas as well. The first American Masonic book was Benjamin Franklin’s reprint of Anderson’s Constitutions, which helped the Craft get established in the colonies. In his 2014 book, That Religion in Which All Men Agree: Freemasonry in American Culture, historian David Hackett describes how colonial Freemasonry went hand in hand with a new sense of cultural refinement, often providing a venue for the cultivation of a more widespread appreciation of the arts. While the American Masons echoed their English counterparts in the importance of Neo-Classical architecture, the most significant proponent of Palladianism would be Thomas Jefferson. While it is highly unlikely that Jefferson was a Freemason, he was a devotee of Andrea Palladio. While in Europe, he obtained a copy of Palladio’s Four Books on Architecture, and later referred to it as his “bible.” In Jefferson’s view, this kind of architecture was not just beautiful, but it could “excite ideas”—and was therefore reflective of the new, free society that Americans hoped to build. After the Revolution, through Jefferson’s efforts and those of George Washington, Neo-Classical architecture would become the style of the new Federal city and the distinctive architecture of the American republic.
By now, it is clear that there was a time when Freemasonry’s focus on architecture was far more specific than we normally imagine. But, although the Craft no longer promotes the erection of Palladian buildings, the purpose of Freemasonry’s interest in architecture is never to teach trivia for the sake of trivia. Perhaps the most important architectural lesson that we are still taught in our degrees is when, after considering the five Classical orders of architecture, we are informed that Freemasonry does not view the five equally. Three are superior. Both the stripped-down and overly-complex approaches lose the purity found in the more balanced Grecian forms. This is a lesson in aesthetics that is far more than an historical footnote, for it can be readily applied in our personal and professional activities. In it, we see another aspect of our ancient Craft’s enduring relevance, as we thoughtfully go about our work in the quarries of our lives.
While our teachings about architecture are usually metaphorical today, there are times when we really are builders. Those occasions give us an opportunity to translate our ancient teachings into physical reality. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the design of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, where the five Classical orders, tastefully accented by modern Art Deco elements, unite in an harmonious fabric devoted forever to the memory of our most esteemed Freemason, Brother George Washington. We imagine that brethren like James Anderson, Martin Clare, Francis Drake, Edward Oakley, and Benjamin Cole would be proud to see that the Fraternity which they establish in the upstairs halls of English taverns would one day honor its greatest member with a structure of such magnificent beauty.