First Published in 1950
By Bernard E Jones
Past Assistant Grand Director of Ceremonies
The allegories that veil freemasonry, as also the symbols that illustrate it, are, as readers of this book well know, drawn from the lore of architecture and building. Freemasonry has two histories – the one, legendary and traditional, going back almost to the dawn of architecture; the other, authentic, covering a period of a few hundred years and deriving in some part from the ancient craft guilds and fraternities whose fortunes rose and fell in England with the Gothic period; in that particular period are believed to lie the main roots of world freemasonry.
The freemason can well afford to spare a few minutes in which to acquaint himself with a mere outline of architectural development and see for himself how ‘English Gothic’ came into being. (Many authorities have been consulted for the detailed information presented in this articler, and mention must particularly be made of the 1909 edition of Professor F. M. Simpson’s three-volume History of Architectural Development (Longmans Green), a brilliant and valuable treatise.)
When the draughty hovels of prehistoric man, roughly built of stones or thrown together with boughs and mud, began in the course of ages to assume some vestige of form and proportion, then was architecture born, and civilization started on its long journey. “The perception of beauty and deformity is the first thing which influences man to attempt to escape from a grovelling, brutish character.”
Old-fashioned writers used to say that the Egyptians learnt architecture from the cavern, the Chinese from a bamboo-framed tent, the Greeks from a flat-roofed hut, and the Gothics from a grove of trees. This is no more than plausible, even if it be that, but it can be shown that architecture soon outdistanced any mere copying of natural and other simple forms, and grew, through six thousand years or so, to become the world’s supreme art, comprising in its ultimate development a whole group of subsidiary arts. Masonry, which is associated chiefly with building in stone, is one of the chief of those arts.
An extremely brief glance at prehistoric masonry suffices to show that from the very dawn of the mechanical arts thousands of years ago the mason was active. Remains of a few of the more massive examples of his work have come down to us.
The monoliths are upright stones, one of which in Brittany is 63 feet high and weighs about 250 tons; sometimes they support table stones, or cromlechs, weighing up to 10 tons.
Ancient City of Tiryns
In the ancient cities of Tiryns and Mycenæ stone walls 25 feet thick and 60 feet high, built with blocks 9 feet long and surfaced in such a way as to make very tight, thin joints, even without the help of mortar. We call the unknown builders of these great walls giants, or Cyclops.
The great temple at Palenque
There was much mighty building in Mexico and Peru thousands of years ago. The great temple at Palenque was 230 feet long and do feet wide; some retaining walls discovered in Peru are said to be no less than 225 feet thick and 108 feet high, and in walls elsewhere are found built-in stones as long as 27 feet, 14 feet deep, and 12 feet high, weighing about 28 tons, cut, shaped, and placed in position with extreme accuracy.
So far as we know, Babylonia and Assyria were among the first of all the Eastern builders, but, unfortunately, in their very early days they built in brick of poor quality which returned in the course of centuries to the clay from which it had been made. When at a later stage they used more permanent materials we know from the remains brought to light by excavation that, as builders, these early people were of considerable worth. The proportions of their narrow, rectangular buildings, their handsome columns and lintels-all these are regarded as the real inspiration of Greek architecture.
In Babylon there was a great temple with alabaster floor-slabs measuring nearly 20 feet by 12 feet. The ancient Persians built in timber, but when their descendants built in stone they produced some massive work; the palace Chehil Minare, for example, had retaining walls over 1400 feet long, built of immense stones and supporting a raised platform, approached by what is regarded as the finest double staircase in the world.
Egypt. Building in Egypt must have been among the earliest in the world, and is the first of which we have written record. As builders, the Egyptians had both material and labour in their favour. Unlimited material – if not in their own country, then in bordering countries, such as Arabia, from which came, or so we are told, the great blocks of stone with which the Pyramids were built. Unlimited labour – slaves and serfs compelled by brute force to do work at considerable risk to life and limb. Overseers and artificers were well trained and highly skilled; the rest was simply the organized and ruthless direction of slave labour. In honour of the dead whom they worshipped the Egyptians built great tombs, the Pyramids, the largest of which has a base 768 feet square and a height originally of 490 feet, some of the stones of which it is built being 30 feet long and of enormous weight. For this one pyramid, it is said, it took twenty years to bring the stones from Arabia.
Long before written history the Egyptians were building temples in each of which a forest of columns supported a flat stone roof, the arch not then being used in great buildings, although the Egyptians did have arches, elliptical ones of brick, probably restricted to use in minor buildings. All architecture may be divided into the styles of the entablature (the joist and flat roof) and that of the arch, and we shall see later that it was the clever development and use of the arch that led to the Gothic construction with which the medieval working freemason was familiar.
Greece. The Greeks were a nation of merchants and mariners doing business with all the known world over a long period of time, and they must at an early date have learnt from Assyria, Egypt, and other countries of the East all that could then be taught them of architecture, an art in which they themselves soon became adept, and in which they are acknowledged to-day as the greatest masters. Their judgment with regard to proportion and symmetry has never been questioned. Of the early Greek temples and other buildings nothing much is known, as they were of timber and have long since disappeared. It is supposed, but sometimes questioned, that the horizontal timber lintel, or beam supported by posts (constituting for the Greeks a rude emblem of fraternal unity), was the inspiration of the outstanding feature of later Greek architecture – the pillars of exquisite design and beautiful workmanship supporting the entablature (the horizontal architrave, the frieze, and the cornice). It will be understood that the two parts of the sloping timber roof, meeting at the ridge, produced a triangular space back and front, and this had to be filled by what is known as the pediment, another Greek characteristic.
Although the arch was not used by the Greeks in the grand manner, they were well aware of its purpose, but were content to use it in a minor way; for example, over a lintel, itself supported by columns, they would place what we now know as a discharging arch, its purpose being to prevent the weight of the masonry above bearing direct upon the lintel.
It is the Greeks who originated or developed the orders of architecture to which the attention of the freemason is often directed. By “orders” are known certain arrangements of construction and ornament as applied to columns and the lintels over them; the three greatest of them – the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian – are illustrated. The idea of the Doric came from Egypt, and that of the Ionic from Assyria but the Greeks so largely redesigned these two orders as to be regarded as their originators.
The Doric Column
The order which the Greeks most loved was the Doric, the most massive of the three, but more delicate, more refined, and more dignified; generally it had a fluted shaft standing on a series of steps and having no base of its own, and the tapering of that shaft, together with the slight convexing of the horizontal lines of the lintel above, was intended to correct an optical illusion. Its capital, where the shaft supports the lintel, is moulded. The Ionic shaft, on the other hand, had a base, and on the capital were carved scrolls or volutes; this shaft was lighter than the Doric. In the Corinthian order the shaft was lighter still, and a bell-shaped capital was deeply carved with foliage; very occasionally a scroll or volute was added.