Yasha Beresiner Visits One Of Freemasonry’s Oldest Halls
In the city centre of Gloucester, in full view of the cathedral, stands the Masonic Hall. It comes with a history: the trees used for the roof and supporting beams were felled over five hundred years ago in order to construct this large and complex building which began its service to the city as an indoor market place.
The building was purchased by the Gloucester masonic lodges in 1955 and today is one of seventeen halls – many very ancient – used by some eighty lodges meeting in the province. Within the Hall, twelve Craft lodges meet along with various other Orders.
The main temple, dominated by low ancient beams, has a very special atmosphere. This is greatly enhanced by a huge and impressive eighteenthcentury masonic painting hanging in the east, behind the Master’s chair. It is some eight feet in height and five and a half feet across.
It was found in a damaged state by Samuel Bland, then Master of the Hall’s lodge, Royal Lebanon, No. 493. It was cleaned and restored at his expense and presented to the lodge in February 1887. The artist’s signature, Henry Barrett, and the date 1799, appear at the lower left corner of this outstanding painting.
The vibrant colours revealed by the restoration emphasise the many symbols and emblems of Freemasonry. Two angels, swords in hand and a finger on their lips, protect the entrance to the archway and caution against revealing what mysteries lie beyond. The archway is supported by ten columns, five on each side. Beyond, the temple, drawn in a three-dimensional perspective, beckons the viewer to enter past the pillars and the black and white pavement.
The keystone at the head of the arch depicts a triangle within a nimbus bearing a skull and cross-bones. Just above the keystone is a globe, signifying masonry universal and beyond it, a radiating pentagram with the letter ‘G’ in the centre flanked by the moon and the sun on either side. An All-Seeing Eye peers out through the ‘G’ itself.
The name of the lodge, whose property the painting remains, is centrally placed and prominent in its gold lettering. This is a truly stupendous painting which depicts, by its symbolism alone, the heart and breadth of the masonic system. If, of course, we should stop long enough before it to ponder its meaning; it would make a great place for the Provincial Orator to begin!
In the anteroom hangs an unusual modern mahogany barometer, the property of Chosen Hill Lodge, No. 8067, and dated 1971. The artist who constructed the piece used masonic symbols to their best effect showing that our artistic traditions are still alive. The barometer is headed by the three columns of the orders of architecture topped by a pediment. On this, inlaid into the wood, are the emblems of the senior and junior wardens, namely the level and plumb rule, both leaning toward a central terrestrial globe, the usual symbol of masonry universal. The 140mm diameter glass-cased dial has below it beautifully executed rough and smooth ashlars with the square and compasses, all set into the surface of a chequered floor.
Within the building some valuable prints are to be found. Hanging in the dining hall are the six English Palser prints of 1813 in full colour depicting the various ceremonies of the degrees of Freemasonry; near to the entrance of the building is a lightly damaged original copy of the rare 1723 Piccart print ‘Les Freemasons’ which is the earliest depiction of Freemasons wearing their regalia.
An upstairs room contains a number of interesting masonic items: the most beautiful is what appears to be an example of the popular Napoleonic prisoner of war handiwork, usually found as jewels in glass watch-cases.
In the years that followed the French Revolution, as Napoleon expanded his Empire, Europe was at war and many French prisoners found themselves prisoners of the English forces. Here we find the true spirit of Freemasonry which was allowed to thrive in spite of the conflict, within the adverse confines of the prisons. It was under these circumstances that artefacts were being produced, depicting masonry and its symbolism in such a sophisticated manner.
This piece is a finely detailed plaque much larger than standard, about 150mm square, with classic symbols representing every branch of Freemasonry and made from paper, wood and bone. The emblems are encased within a circular frame resting on a black square background the top corners of which are adorned with a gilt depiction of the radiating sun with the moon and stars. Below, the tools and the three lights of masonry, the square, compasses and Volume of Sacred Law, are delicately drawn.
Familiar emblems of the Craft, the Royal Arch and several degrees beyond, crowd the miniature painting. The three lights are repeated, now centrally placed and flanked by the two great pillars forming an arch above. Three crowns with the plumb rule and level float in the space between these. To one side, the lamb, symbol of innocence, walks toward a burning bush, on the other, a cockerel stands by a cross and Jacob’s ladder leading to the heavens. Other symbols - candles, chalices, swords, angels and more, are headed by a striking depiction of the All-Seeing Eye at the top. Overall, this is an impressive piece of symbolic masonic art probably executed by a talented young French prisoner held by the British between 1803 and 1815.
On a shelf in the same room is a splendid Scottish pottery maul - which serves as a whisky decanter - and a matching cup. These are exclusively Scottish objects and are a reminder that, unlike England, the gavel is a nonexistent implement in Scottish Lodges. Instead, they use the maul, the working mason’s tool.
Thus the maul is here replicated as a whisky vessel made of pottery with elaborate masonic designs embedded into the surface. These have been salt glazed, that is, salt has been added to the chamber of the hot kiln giving the finished product a typical glossy and slightly orange-peel texture. Such pieces were produced in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, this one being made by the Glasgow Grosvenor pottery that flourished between 1868 and 1923.