Vol. XXXII No. 6 — June 1954

The Architecture of Masonry

What Freemasonry omits is often as amazing as what Freemasonry includes, as brought to light by an enormous amount of research.

Freemasonry was born in, on, around, beside not one building, but many. Its mythical, legendary story is told in the Hiramic Legend that is motivated and located in and with the building of King Solomon’s Temple, but actually, Speculative Masonry commenced in England (and perhaps in France and Germany) in the period, roughly A.D. 1000-1500. William Preston, who did so much for Masonic ritual in the eighteenth century, condensed an intelligent layman’s knowledge of architecture in what we know as his explanation of “the five orders of architecture” and in which, by implication at least, he dismisses all other “orders” from consideration except the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite, three of which are Greek and two Roman.

William Preston was a learned man; a man who believed in education; a man who wished to make Speculative Masonry important to many brethren, at least as far as understanding “the seven liberal arts and sciences” was concerned.

Apparently, however, he had little or no knowledge of the history of Freemasonry; he jumps quite contentedly from those days in which man to “contrive shelter from the inclemency of the weather — first planted trees on end and then laid others across to support a covering,” to the great triumphs of Greek and Roman Architecture that he calls “THE” five orders (as if there were no others).

He makes no mention of the great “order in architecture” which was the mother of Speculative Masonry — the Gothic.

In no Masonic ritual is use made of the common terms of an architect; ritual does speak of “the base and capital of pillars” of “columns and pilasters” in both the Fellowcraft and the Master Mason Degrees, and the rough and perfect ashlars are “jewels,” but of the ordinary terms of architecture and building; entablature; architrave; fluting; flying buttress, volutes, dentils, abacus, struts, aisles, crocket; clerestory, pier, vault, rib, etc. the ritual is silent.

The art of building is extremely old; no one has yet had the temerity to say when the first man left his cave or the shelter of his tree to begin living in a hut made of “trees planted on end with others across to support a covering.” The time is completely lost in the mists of antiquity. The earliest remains of the oldest cities, uncovered by archeological explorations, discover buildings of some pretentiousness. The early history of Egypt shows structures that indicate a high degree of inventiveness and skill. The Egypt of the time of the Captivity was filled with mighty Temples, huge columns, great courts, elaborate palaces.

Architecture, reduced to a very simple term, is the art or science of enclosing a space to make it habitable or useful to man. It is not necessarily a protection against the weather — the great football stadiums of today are architectural works that may be as remarkable perhaps to a distant posterity as the Coliseum at Rome — also a place for spectacles — is to us, although the Coliseum was beautiful in and for its own sake where modern football stadiums practically all are wholly utilitarian.

All architecture is limited by the strength of materials available. Modern architecture is far less limited than that of the Middle Ages because of more material. The “post and lintel” form of house — the immediate development of the trees planted on end with others across to support a covering — was limited in size of room and height of house by the ability of walls to withstand pressure, stress and thrust, of beams to withstand stress caused by weight. Builders were anciently limited by lack of power — man, beast, pulley, rope, lever was their all.

When early builders wished to make their structures large, their enclosed space became inhabited by a perfect forest of columns and pillars. Roof beams and slabs of stone were limited in size by the ability of the workmen to raise and place them, by the skill of quarrymen to get them from their quarries. Beams of wood were limited in size by the height of trees. The only way to construct a very large room was to have many supports within it.

One result was the “open court” type of pretentious dwelling in which a central open space was surrounded by living quarters; with such a house, at least in good weather, there was room to work, eat, and play out of doors, with shelter close at hand. This was a Roman type and, since, the Latin warm countries’ type of domestic dwelling.

Architects differ in their classification of the various "orders of architecture.” But they are much of one mind in stating that the “five orders of architecture” of the Fellowcraft Degree is an inaccurate and incomplete list.

The styles or “orders of architecture” generally recognized include the early, or archaeological, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Byzantine, Oriental (or Far Eastern), Spanish, and Gothic, the last named having several subdivisions, such as Italian, French, Provençal, etc.

As centuries passed, materials became more varied, and new ideas of building came from the inventions and discoveries of architects and engineers.

The age of steel and of power developed the new, or modern architecture, which draws from many of the older styles but also originated "orders of architecture’ never thought of before steel and power made possible such triumphs of the art and of the builder’s skill as the Woolworth Building, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the United Nations Building in New York, the Merchandise Mart in Chicago.

The earliest contrived arch is dated at least 4000 B.C.

It was doubtless a development of some early builder leaning two slabs of stone together so that they touched at the top and discovering that the combined result would support a great weight. But the arch, while early known, became a great “tool” of architecture, when it became something more than a small bridge or an incidental feature and began to support walls and floors. With its use, windows could be made larger and columns less in number. Better tools came from advances in the metalworking arts; these better tools made it possible to quarry larger pieces of stone.

This paper is far too short to attempt to give a history of architecture; for the present purposes, it must be skipped to come to the cathedral building age — roughly, in Europe and the British Isles the great cathedral building years were from the tenth to the sixteenth century.

Freemasonry, like any other philosophy, or mode or manner of thought, required both a climate and a soil in which to grow. These it found in the cultural rebirth of Europe in the last half of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Scholasticism slowly gave way to a greater education among people. Feudalism was on the decline. People began to feel themselves as belonging to a nation, rather than an isolated community. Bishops and secular clergy were taking the place and influence of monastic life. Art had a rebirth. The “dark ages” were at an end, and a new birth of thought and aspiration came into the world.

Cathedrals, Gothic architecture, the ecclesiastical arts of carving, stained glass, stone setting for beauty as well as utility, and Freemasonry resulted.

The cathedral — more correctly, the “Cathedral Church” — ecclesia cathedralis — is that structure that contains the seat or throne of a bishop.

Authorities on the subject divide cathedrals into four classes; the church of a diocesan bishop; the metropolitan church to which other diocesan cathedral churches are suffragen; the primatial church under which are more than one metropolitan cathedral church, and the patriarchal cathedral churches that are those to which all others owe allegiance.

Whatever the class, any cathedral church was (and is) esteemed as of great dignity, importance and power; as a result such structures became the utmost in the effort of architects, engineers, builders, artists and artisans. No one can visit any of the great cathedrals of Europe — (or, for that matter, the three great cathedrals in this country, two in New York and one in Washington) — and not be impressed with the idea that the architects and the builders worked with the conviction that there was nothing too good, no expense too great, no time too long, to devote to the erection of the greatest, most beautiful, dignified and impressive house of God that the power of man could cause to rise.

Whether cathedral building made Gothic architecture or Gothic architecture fostered cathedral building is perhaps beside the point. The two are inescapably connected. Gothic is a development of Romanesque and came to its great flowering in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A brief paragraph from the Britannica describes Gothic architecture:

Its structural forms, originated in the effort to build, simply and beautifully, churches completely vaulted in stone with ribbed vaults, with nave, clerestory windows and side aisles, and with large areas for stained glass; its decorative details developed in the striving to find the loveliest and most appropriate ornament for such structural forms.

Ribbed vaults; much use of the pointed arch; stained glass windows that could fill large open spaces; decorative importance given to such necessities as flying buttresses, mouldings, carvings, pillars, columns, pilasters; gables and arcades made beautiful as well as useful; usually a great emphasis on the vertical or soaring line — these are characteristic of the Gothic Middle Ages cathedral architecture.

It was a religious age. Printing (prior to 1456) had not yet been invented but was to come soon and make the Bible the heritage of all. The church was all powerful. Men worked lovingly in stone. The smallest carvings, the most hidden of beauties in many cathedrals, are as beautifully done as the prominent features.

Both the inside and the out
Wrought they with the greatest care.
Each minute and unseen part
For the gods see everywhere!

may express this feeling if “gods see” be paraphrased “God sees.”

Gothic architecture spread from church and cathedral to castle and palace and town hall and other large buildings. Even barns, court houses, manors, hospitals felt the impress, until Gothic became the principal, most used and inspiring style of the builders of the Middle Ages.

Among the great cathedrals of the old world, Notre Dame, Amiens, Canterbury, Salisbury, Lincoln, Ulm, Laon, Blourges, Rheims, Rouen, York Minster may be mentioned as outstanding examples of Gothic architecture.

And this is the architecture that gave rise to Freemasonry. Admitting that there must have been some sort of builders’ order or fraternity before Gothic took hold of the imaginations of the architects and builders of the great cathedrals, it was in and about these structures, and perhaps because of their beauty, importance, lavishness and their high reach in vertical fine and tower towards a hidden but revered Most High, that Freemasonry was born. It can hardly be doubted that the moral and ethical character of Freemasonry, its dependence upon the great things of the spirit and the truths of men’s aspirations, must have been influenced and shaped by the shaping of beauty in stone.

A building, honestly constructed, is always a sincerity regardless of its purpose; dignity can be expressed in the building of a factory as well as a church. But there is no inspiration in mere utility. It is when utility is turned into beauty — it is when no utility will be tolerated until it can be beautiful — that architecture becomes an art and inspires those who follow it and work by and in its accomplishments.

The architecture of Freemasonry is the Gothic; it is not to be found in the “five orders of architecture” as expressed so simply by Preston. The inspiration for the teaching of the truths of the order came from great and high and lovely structures of stone, from gorgeous stained glass, from loving and careful carving in wood and stone, from making the useful beautiful and the beautiful a cry of triumph to God.

The Masonic Service Association of North America