Breadcrumbs Freemasonry in Israel > Articles > Research > The Iconography of the Tracing Boards

The Iconography of the Tracing Boards
Leon Zeldis, FPS, 33°
La República University, Santiago, Chile
PSGC, Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite for the State of Israel
Honorary Adjunct Grand Master
Editor, The Israeli Freemason

In this paper, I shall not deal with the history and development of the Tracing Boards (or Trestle, or Tressel Boards — T.B. for short), prominently displayed in most lodges in the English-speaking world. However, a few words of explanation may not be superfluous, in order to understand the place of the T.B. in our lodge proceedings. Those interested in the historical aspects of the T.B. should refer to the articles by Brother E.H. Dring1 and Brother T.O. Haunch.2 Additional information is given by Brother Mark S. Dwor, focusing on Canadian practices.3

The origin of the T.B. appears to be the fact that speculative masons met at first in public places, where they had no special furniture or adornments to illustrate their symbols. One of the more experienced brothers, more often than not the Tyler, would draw rough designs on the floor, using chalk and/or charcoal, showing the symbols appropriate to the ceremony that was to be performed. The drawings were necessarily sketchy, even though sometimes metal or wooden templates were used to assist him in his work.

In this illustration a brother in lodge La Paix in the Netherlands, is keeping alive this practice even today. [1] Below is the drawing he is making. The explanations on the side were added for publication.

A further illustration of this practice comes from the Dutch lodge De Geldersche Broederschap. [2]

After the ritual part had ended, the same brother would erase the drawing, using mop and bucket. An amusing etching by Hogarth called "Night" [3] shows the Tyler holding his mop, accompanying the Master of the Lodge, who apparently had toasted more times than his brain could tolerate, and now needed the supporting hand of another brother to steady his steps. The chamberpot of whatever liquid being spilled over him is perhaps a snide allusion that since the Master has behaved as a cowan, an intruder, it is right he should be put under a drainpipe, as prescribed in some old Masonic documents. Well, no drainpipe being available, that chamberpot will do.

Turning to non-intoxicated Masons, there is documentary evidence of the practice I just described, of "drawing the lodge," from the early 17th century, and it is probably much older still. The minutes of the Old King's Arms Lodge N° 28 mentions that "in 1733 ... the Brethren acquired a Drawing Board and T. for the use of the Master and his Lodge."4 This strongly suggest that the lodge was already using some kind of tracing board and the T. might refer to a trestle. Furthermore, in the minutes of the same lodge for December 1st, 1735, the use of a Foot Cloth in the Initiation of new members was approved, and brother West was appointed to make the drawing, for which he would be paid.

These two illustrations [4, 5] show the use of the Floor Cloth in 18th century French lodges, while performing ceremonies.

Sometimes, a specially plastered section of the floor was used to draw architectural designs. Medieval plaster tracing floors survive at Wells Cathedral and York Minster.5 "The Wells tracing floor is in a room over the north nave porch ... At York it is in the L-shaped room on the first floor of the vestibule to the chapter house, built from about the 1280s, a room fitted up for the masons with a fireplace and a garderobe and where the post medieval templates still hang. The plaster surface is about 7 m × 4 m; it is covered in incised lines among which can be identified profiles of mouldings and designs for tracery ... A drawing similar to the one at York survives at Soissons Cathedral [in France], incised into the stone floor in the north west tower. At Narbonne Cathedral the plan of one of the main piers is incised into the floor of the axial chapel." Probably, the same surface would be used in Masonic ceremonies to draw our symbols.

Since not all Tylers are good at drawing, even with the help of templates, a better solution was soon found: have the designs drawn by a brother with artistic bent on a piece of cloth that would be spread on the floor, to be rolled back after the ceremony. [6]

The next obvious step was to make the drawings, or rather paintings, on a board. This was originally placed on the floor, like the cloth carpet, and this is probably the source for the custom of "squaring the lodge" common in many rituals, to avoid stepping on the drawing and staining or damaging it. [7]

Eventually, a better place was found for the board: it was placed on a trestle, or hung on the wall.

There is an endless variety of designs for the T.B. Today, perhaps the most commonly used are the pictures made in 1845 by the painter Brother John Harris, for the Emulation Lodge of Improvement in London.

Before examining the Harris designs, let us examine a different version of the First Degree T.B., painted with oils on canvas, around 1829-25. Some of the symbols appearing on this painting will be seen in the Harris design, while others will disappear, such as the beehive, hourglass, mirror, and the three candlesticks. [8]

The First Degree T.B.

The Harris T.B. of this degree represents the lodge itself, that is, the room where Masons meet. In many writings, the T.B. is in fact called "the Lodge," and when we find the expression "drawing the Lodge" the reference is to the T.B. [9]

Inside the T.B., that represents the Lodge, we find — among the other symbols — one of the T.B. itself. This is a sort of recursive image very popular among surrealist artists, such as Escher or Magritte. The hand that is drawing itself is one example. [10]

This also makes reference to the images produced by two parallel mirrors, and all the symbols of infinity, such as the Ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail.

The shape of the lodge is rectangular (in some old rituals it is called "an oblong square"). Its symbolic dimensions are: length, East to West; width: North to South, and Height: from the zenith to the center of the earth — some sources extend it to the nadir. These vast dimensions, in fact limitless, stress the universality of Masonry, and the boundless fraternity that must exist among the brethren.

The axis of the lodge is oriented west to east. The traditional explanation is that sacred buildings are oriented in that way, beginning with the Tabernacle built by Moses in the desert, following with King Solomon's Temple and continuing with synagogues and churches.

However, this begs the question, because then we must ask, why should these buildings be oriented in such way? The probable explanation is that the East, the place where the sun rises every day, was regarded as holy from ancient times. Prehistoric stone monuments, like Stonehenge, are oriented that way.6 The word "oriented" itself means facing the Orient, the East. Whoever is disoriented has lost his bearings. For thousands of years, before the invention of the magnetic compass, the most important, the most significant direction was the East. Many old maps represented the earth with the East at the top, that is, as if the observer were facing the East. This convention survived even as late as 1623, in a map of Terra Sancta by the great cartographer Gerardus Mercator (author of the famous projection to tranfer shapes on a sphere to a flat plane).7

In Hebrew, a very old language, the word kedem (kehdehm) means both "Orient" and "Forward," giving rise to words such as kidma (keedmah) — progress. The same root word expressed extreme antiquity, such as the expression Adam Kadmon (ahdahm kahdmohn) (the primitive or ancient man), a term employed in Kabalistic literature. In Hebrew, again, the word yamin (yahmeen) means both "right side" and "south." This confirms the fact that the East was regarded as the natural or normal direction in front of the spectator.

The earthly paradise, Eden, was also in the East, and all Esoteric traditions insist that wisdom has its origin in the East.

In the Lodge stand two great pillars, representing the two pillars that stood at the entrance to the Temple: Boaz and Yachin. I shall deal with them when describing the Second Degree T.B.

The lodge rests on three columns, called Wisdom, Strength and Beauty, represented in the Lodge by the Master and the two Wardens. Each one has a small column at hand, reminding his duties. Wisdom directs our actions, strength sustains us in times of danger or stress, and beauty adorns our life and our soul. Some authors identify Beauty with Harmony. The three columns are built in the three styles of Greek architecture: Doric (Strength), Ionic (Wisdom), and Corinthian (Beauty).

This drawing shows the five styles of classical columns, to better see their differences. [11]

The columns also represent the three principal actors in Masonic legends: King Solomon, King Hiram of Tyre and Hiram Abiff, respectively. In more general terms, the three columns represent all ternary symbols. The number three, as we know, has special significance for the Entered Apprentice. About the number three I could devote a whole lecture, perhaps a series of lectures (hint, Carole?). Suffice me to say at this point that for the Pythagorean, three was the perfect number, composed of the male principle — one — and the female — two. In fact, it was regarded as the first real number, because it is the first one that has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The three columns have also a Kabalistic explanation, because they may stand for the three columns in the Tree of Life, the graphic representation of the ten Sephirot (sfeeroht). [12]

There, the column on the right is called 'Column of Mercy.' That on the left is the 'Column of Severity,' and the one in the middle is called the 'Column of Consciousness' which keeps the other two in balance. The three columns reach the apex of Divinity, Keter (kehtehr) at the top of the central column, also known as ayin (ahyeen), nothingness.

MacNulty also mentions that the Renaissance philosophers believed that the universe consisted of four worlds. In Kabbalah we find the same division: the elemental or physical world, the celestial world of the psyche or soul, the 'supercelestial' world of spirit, and the Divine world. These are represented on the T.B.: [13]

The Pavement represents the physical world, the central part of the Board, including the columns and most of the symbols, represents the psychological world, the Heavens on top of the Board represent the spiritual world and the Glory, represents Divinity.8

The ceiling of the lodge is adorned with stars, generally seven. This is also a favorite number of numerologists, its symbolism is almost as varied as that of the triad. To meet in lodge and perform Masonic work, at least seven Masons must be present.

Jacob's Ladder

Reaching the starry sky is the ladder known as Jacob's Ladder. Let me recount briefly the origin of the story of Jacob's dream. On his way to Paddam Aram, to his uncle Laban, Jacob is tired and spends the night on the road. He takes a stone as his pillow. While dreaming, he sees a stairway reaching the heaven and angels walking up and down. G-d speaks to Jacob, promises to give him and his descendants the land around him, and to make his descendants numerous like the dust of the earth. When he wakes up, Jacob is seized with fear. This is a holy place, he thinks, and the door to heaven. He erects the stone he had used as a pillow and makes an altar of it, and then names the place Bethel, that is, the House of G-d. This episode of the Bible has fired the imagination of numerous artists, who have depicted Jacob's dream is a variety of ways.

In our Board, the stairway is symbolized by a ladder, resting on the altar, which as we now know, in fact represents the stone. The Hebrew word in the Biblical story, Soolam (soolahm), can be interpreted both as stairway and as ladder, and artists have used both meanings in their works. [14]

The rungs of the ladder symbolize the various virtues. Three are of particular importance, known and the Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity, and they are represented by three female figures on the ladder. Faith is holding a cross, or a cup (the Holy Grail), or a heart. Hope is holding an anchor, and Charity is surrounded by children. Sometimes the three virtues are represented simply by the letters F, H, and C. The Masonic use of this symbolism of Jacob's Ladder is much more recent than the other symbols shown in the T.B. It dates from not before the end of the 18th or the beginning of the 19th century. The symbol also appears in non-Masonic contexts, For example, an old Spanish etching depicts Jacob's ladder with the three virtues, with their traditional implements: heart and the Tablets of the Law for Faith, the anchor for Hope, and the children for Charity. Curiously, the figures depicted on the ladder are Mattathias and Judas Maccabee, who replaces Jacob.9 [15]

The ladder, or scale, as a symbol, is extremely old, always indicating the connection between the earth and the heavens, the ascent of man striving for perfection. It is symbolically connected with the mountain. Temples were often built on top of a mountain, and in some cultures the temple itself represents a mountain. Some artists have painted Jacob's ladder as a flight of steps on the slope of a mountain. The ladder is also connected with the archetype of the tree, the axis mundi, and the great chain of being.

Since it is closely linked with the idea of redemption or seeking perfection, it is also connected with Initiation. In The Golden Ass, for example, the initiate must ascend a stairway. This would explain its connection with the First Degree of Initiation. Further explanations about the symbolism of the ladder can be found in my paper published in AQC.10

The top of the ladder reaches the heavens, veiled to profane eyes by the clouds of ignorance. In Albrecht Dürer's famous engraving, Melancholia, a ladder is depicted leaning on the building, with the top unseen, [16] possibly extending up to the heavens.

This has been explained as Dürer's allusion to Jacob's ladder, with all its symbolism. Other artists, like Joan Miró and Anselm Kiefer, have included the ladder in their paintings as symbol of ascent or exaltation of the spirit. [17] Kiefer calls this painting "Resurrexit," and Miró used the ladder often, calling it "ladder of escape" [18].

The ladder also appears in one of the most important degrees of the Ancient And Accepted Scottish Rite: the 30th, or Kadosh degree. There, again, it represents spiritual ascent and the connection of the human with the divine.

The stone used by Jacob, which became an altar, is — according to Hebrew traditions — the even ha-shtiya (ehvehn hah-shteeyah) — the foundation stone of the world, resting on the very center of the earth. This was also the stone where Adam's altar stood, and where Noah offered his sacrifice after the flood, and also, the same stone-altar where Abraham was going to sacrifice his son Isaac. The stone lay in the Kodesh Hakodashim (kohdehsh hakohdahsheem) — the Holy of Holies of Jerusalem's Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It can be seen under the Dome of the Rock, in present-day Jerusalem.

The Lights

Three great and three small lights are found in the lodge, as well as mobile and immobile jewels, and tools. All these are represented in the T.B.

The three great lights of Freemasonry are the Volume of the Sacred Law, the Square and the Compasses. The first is traditionally the Bible, but the desire to make Freemasonry an universal organization linking men of all faiths has led to the introduction of other holy books on the altar, particularly for the purpose of allowing a man to seal his obligations on the volume of holy writings that he most respects. In Israel, for example, Grand Lodge officers include three Grand Chaplains with equal rank, one Jewish, one Christian and the third Muslim. On the altar are placed the Tanakh (tahnach), or Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran.

The three small lights, or reflections of the first three, are the sun, the moon, and the Worshipful Master. The two luminaries of day and night (Genesis 1:16) are represented in the lodge by the two Wardens, while behind the Master usually hangs the luminous Delta, with the eye that sees all in the center, [19] or the Hebrew letter yod (yohd) that stands for the Tetragammaton (yod-heh-vav-heh), the unpronounceable name of G-d. The three main officers are also known as the "Lights" of the lodge.

The sun and the moon traditionally represent the masculine and feminine aspects of nature, depicting again the idea of duality, the connection of opposites.

The Wardens' sun and moon — remind us that Masons must work day and night, which also explains the symbolic hours of work of the Lodge: from noon to midnight.

There is a strong connection between Masonic traditions and Light. The crucial moment of Masonic Initiation is when the candidate has his eyes exposed to light. Masons are also known as "Sons of the Light." This is interesting, because the members of the Essene sect living in Qumran, where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found, also called themselves "Sons of the Light," and that was two thousand years ago. Some Masonic practices are similar to those of the Essenes living in Qumran.

In Hebrew mysticism, the Kabbalah, we find the idea that G-d and His emanations are one. What are these emanations? The lights, Orot (ohroht), of the Sephirot, which like souls animate the "vessels," Kelim (kehleem), of the Sephirot. These are not merely connected to G-d, they are actually one with Him. In other words, Light and G-d are one.

The Jewels

The lodge has three "movable jewels" and three "immovable jewels." The movable ones are the Square, Level and Perpendicular or Plumb. They are called thus because they are worn by the three main officers of the Lodge, who carry them around while performing their duties. The other three jewels are the Tracing Board, Rough Ashlar and Perfect Ashlar or Cubic Stone, which remain in their place in the lodge and are not moved.

In other Grand Lodges, particularly in the United States, the names are reversed. The "movable jewels" are the stones and Tracing Board, because they can be placed in any position within the lodge, while the other three, because they hang from the neck of the officers, who have fixed seating places in the lodge, are called "immovable."

The Tools

The tools of the Entered Apprentice are hammer, chisel and 24-inch ruler. Their full explanation appears in the Initiation Ritual, so I'll be excused from repeating it. Hammer and chisel are self-explanatory: the will of the Mason (hammer) must be directed accurately (chisel) to perform the work, while the 24 inches of the ruler obviously refer to the 24 hours of the day.

The Ornaments or Furniture

The lodge also has three ornaments: the Indented or Tessellated Border, the Blazing Star, and the Mosaic or Checkered Pavement. Prichard, in his Masonry Dissected (1730), calls them the Furniture of the Lodge. This must not be understood as a reference to chairs and tables, but rather to implements or parts.

The Indented Border is linked to the knotted rope encircling the room, close to the ceiling. It symbolizes the great chain of Fraternity embracing the earth. [20] This First Degree T.B. is one of John Browne's designs, dated 1802. We can see the shape of the rope is leading to the idea of rows of triangles in alternating red and blue color, which in many Tracing Boards replace the rope. Some artists, ignoring the link between them, represent both the knotted rope and the tessellated border.

In many T.B. the rope is free, without encircling the Board; it ends in tassels and has a number of open knots along the way. [21]

In the Koran we find this passage (Surato-I-'Imam 3:103): 'And hold fast by the Rope (i.e. the covenant) of Allah, all together and be not disunited.'

From the four corners of the Tessellated Border hang tassels representing the four Cardinal Virtues: Fortitude, Temperance, Prudence and Justice. Justice is the result of Fortitude Tempered by Prudence.

The four Cardinal plus the three Theological are the Seven Virtues. About the number seven, a whole chapter could be written, but I shall mention only the seven days of the week (in Hebrew, the word for week, shavua (shahvooah) is derived from the name for seven: sheva (shehvah), the seven planets known in antiquity, seven metals, seven capital sins, and the seven Liberal Arts and Sciences of the Trivium and the Quadrivium: Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic (the Trivium), Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy (the Quadrivium). These composed the curriculum of university studies in the Middle Ages and until the Renaissance. Seven are also the Principal Officers of the Lodge. This is obviously symbolic (why leave out the Secretary, the Treasurer, the Director of Ceremonies?); the importance of the number seven is so great that reality was twisted to conform to the symbolic number.

The Checkered Pavement, made of alternating white and black squares, reminds us of all antinomies, the dualities of both the physical and the spiritual world: light and darkness, good and evil, past and future, matter and spirit.

The Blazing Star is hanging in the geometrical center of the Lodge and from there it irradiates its influence. These three Ornaments also make reference to the three dimensions of space: the line (knotted rope), surface (floor) and volume (the blazing star).

Kirk MacNulty offers another interpretation of the three Ornaments of the Lodge.11 He claims that they are all intended to refer to the Deity. "The Blazing Star or Glory is a well-know heraldic representation of the Deity. It represents the Deity in all Its Glory, as it projects Itself into existence. The Checkered Pavement represents the Deity as it is perceived to be at the opposite pole of consciousness, here on earth in ordinary life. The light and dark squares represent paired opposites, a mixture of mercy and justice, reward and punishment, vengeance and loving kindness. They also represent the human experience of life, light and dark, good and evil, easy and difficult. But that is only how it is perceived. The squares are not the symbol; the Pavement is the symbol. The light and dark squares fit together nicely to form the Pavement, a single thing, a unity. The whole is surrounded by the Tessellated Border which binds it into a single symbol. In this representation on the Tracing Board the Border binds not simply the squares, but the entire picture, into a unity."

The Point within a Circle

On the Altar is inscribed a circle with a point in its center. [22]

This, according to Masonic rituals, represents the bounded space where a Mason cannot go astray. North and south of this circle are two parallel lines, representing the two great Saints John, the Baptist and the Evangelist, who themselves are connected to the two solstices: that in the summer (June 24) with the Baptist, that in winter (December 27) with the Evangelist. In many jurisdictions, including England, attempting to avoid giving a Christian meaning to Masonic symbols, they are explained differently, as representing the prophet Moses and King Solomon. The upper edge of the circle is tangent to the Volume of the Sacred Law. Therefore, when a Mason goes around this circle, he must necessarily touch the two parallels and the greatest luminary of Freemasonry.

I have already mentioned the relation between circle and infinity, and the two parallel lines, that extend without end and never touch, are likewise symbolic of infinity.

As for the point, Brother Steve A. Freite remarks that one of the six Hindu Darshanas, Nyaya, which is Logic, contains four fundamental values associated with the Point12:

  1. Pradhvamsabhava, annihilation or convergence to the point.
  2. Atyantabhava, emptiness or nothingness (akin to Hebrew Ayin).
  3. Anyonyabhava, infinite dynamism (infinity within the point).
  4. Pragabhava, creation or expansion from the point.

Freite continues: "There is also the doctrine of nadi-bindu-prana which is used in a description of the subtle, bio-energetic body. Bindu, in this case, is the "point" or "drop." Nadi is a conduit of bioenergy and prana is the life-force itself. By controlling these three, one can control consciousness.

Sanskrit also has the word akshara, which describes the collapse of fullness to a point and from the point."

The center is also a fundamental idea in alchemy. "According to Michael Maier, the center contains the indivisible point which is simple, indestructible, and eternal. Its physical counterpart is gold, which is therefore a symbol of eternity."13

C.G. Jung quotes another alchemist, Gerard Dorn, who writes: "Four is he One and yet not the One; it is simple and consists of the number four ... it will show the adept the fulfillment of the mysteries. This is the center of the natural wisdom, whose circumference, closed in itself, forms a circle: an immeasurable order reaching to infinity ... Here is the number four, within whose bounds the number three, together with the number two combined into One, fulfills all things ... In these relations between four, three, two and one is found the culmination of all knowledge and of the mystic art, and the infallible midpoint of the center (infallibile medii centrum)."14 And Jung adds that the One is the midpoint of the circle, the center of the triad ... [it] is fire ... the point is most akin to the nature of light, and light is a simulacrum Dei."15

MacNulty remarks that, taken together, the Ladder and the two parallel lines, three verticals, are also a reference to the three columns of the Cabalistic "Tree of Life," since the central one (the ladder) reaches the heavens.

The Lewis

In a corner of the T.B. we find an instrument used to lift heavy stones. [23] It is called the Lewis and is composed of three pieces of iron, two wedge-shaped and a straight one in-between, assembled in such a way that when they are inserted into a hole made in the stone, they expand and seize the stone to be lifted.


The word Lewis means "strength," and it also applies to the handgrip of a Mason, and the son of a Mason. The origin of the Masonic use of this word appears to be French, because in France louve (she-wolf) and louveton (wolf cub) came into use at about the same time as in England. In the T.B., the tool is represented as supported by a triangular pyramid of legs. The pyramid symbolizes stability. Its four sides plus the six edges give a total of 10, a highly symbolic number (ten Sephirot in the Kabbalah, ten fingers, ten as the basis of the number system we use). The tetraktys, ten dots arranged in a triangle, with four at the base, then three, two, and one at the top, making a total of 10, was considered so holy by the Pythagoreans, that they swore oaths by it.16

Square pyramids, like those in Egypt or in Mexico, have 5 surfaces (4 sides and the base) and eight edges. In old Masonic engravings, the cubic stone is represented as a cube with a square pyramid on top. The pyramid ends in a single point, representing the unity of the universe, or of G-d. Altogether, this body has 16 edges (4 × 4) and 9 sides (4 + 4 + 1). 16 has root 7, four is the square of 2 and 9 is the square of 3. This body, then represents all the symbolic numbers of Esotericism: 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, and 9.

Now that we have examined in detail the Harris design, let me show you an older T.B., dated 1745, taken from the French "exposure" L'Ordre des Franc-Maçons Trahi, and described as the True Plan of the Apprentice-Fellow Lodge. [24]

Here we have many of the symbols that appear in later versions and also some that change places, or did not appear at all: from top to bottom, the Master's chair, with a table in front and then a stool (for the candidate's kneeling), the East door, compasses, the sun and the moon, three windows — east, south and west, the rope with tassels, which in the French original is called the Houpe Dentelé, the letter G within the shining pentacle, rough stone, trowel, armillary sphere, cubic stone with pyramid on top, again the G, the entrance to the Middle Chamber, level and plumb (perpendicular), hammer, square, tracing board, the two columns, B and J, mosaic pavement, seven steps.

The Second Degree T.B.

The Second Degree Board represents the entrance to the Temple. It suggests, writes MacNulty, that "the individual who embarks on the Second Degree is about to undertake some interior journey, an ascent through the soul and spirit."17 [25]

The central symbols in this Board are the Winding Staircase, leading to the Middle Chamber, the two great Pillars, B and J, and the ear of grain or corn growing near a fall of water. [26]

The basis for representing the winding staircase as such is found in the First Book of Kings, Chapter 6 verse 8:

"The entrance to the lowest floor was on the south side of the temple; a 'lulim' led up to the middle level and from there to the third."

The word lulim has been translated as 'spiral staircase', but this is a hapax legomenon, a word occurring only once, and its etymology and meaning are obscure. Brothers A.L. Shane and Edgar Jones, in two exhaustive articles dealing with this issue,18 demonstrate, to my own satisfaction, at least, that the translation is wrong, and that no winding staircase existed in Jerusalem's Temple. The question then arises, as Bro. Jones points out, about the reason for including this symbol in our iconography. He advances the theory that the spiral, as a symbol of spiritual advancement or development, is an ancient symbol, part of that 'perennial philosophy' that was much in vogue among 17th century Masonic ritualists. Amazingly, the spiral or helix is a pattern that appears both in the microcosm at the foundation stone of life, the DNA's double helix, and in the macrocosm of the galaxies. It is a basic pattern of all forms of living growth. The staircase is traditionally represented with flights of three, five and seven steps, referring to the symbolic ages of the Mason as he ascends from the First to the Third Degree. [27]

The sum of the three numbers gives a total of 15, which has a symbolic meaning as well, since this is the value of the name of G-d: yod-heh (10 + 5). More about 15 in the next chapter, on the Third Degree T.B.

Seven is related to the Master Mason. Why should a symbol of the Third Degree appear on the board of the Second? This is explained by the fact that the Third and the Second Degree were actually a single unit until sometime after the creation of the Premier Grand Lodge in 1717. Another hint about this is the fact that in European rituals, when Master Masons meet in Lodge, it is called the Middle Chamber.

While the Entered Apprentice works on the rough ashlar, the Fellowcraft has measuring and testing instruments to prove the quality of the Perfect Ashlar.

The Fellowcraft's symbolic age is five, and we find several references to the number five in its symbolism. The number five is also important in the Master's Degree: the Five Points of Fellowship. This is another example of the mingling of symbols in the Second and Third degrees.

The letter G that stands for Geometry, or Gnosis, and hangs in the center of the lodge, is usually depicted within a pentagram (pentacle), the five-pointed star. [28]

This figure appears often in alchemical pictures, representing the five elements (the four material ones plus the quintessence), five senses, the man with open arms and legs. [29]

Inverted, pointing down, the pentacle is a magic symbol.

The pentacle has many interesting properties, such as the fact that each line is divided by another in the golden section. Entire volumes have been written on this geometrical feature, that appears to be a fundamental element in the creations of visual art, architecture and even music.19

About the meaning of the letter G, there is no agreement among Masonic scholars. Some claim it refers to the initial of G-d, others prefer Geometry which, as we know, was considered synonymous with Mathematics and with Architecture. In old rituals of the Second Degree, the Great Architect of the Universe is called the Great Geometrician.

There are many paintings showing G-d as Geometrician, holding compasses. This image is much older than Speculative Freemasonry. For instance, here is a miniature painting by Jean Fouquet, dated c. 1470, showing the Great Architect on top, holding compasses. [30] An this is another illustration from the 14th century (Olkham Bible Picture Book) [31], and finally a modern interpretation, by the German artist Rudolf Kedl (1928-1991), a metal repoussé relief measuring 71.5 × 109.5 cm. [32]

Those inclined to Esotericism may prefer a reference to Gnosis. In the 1754 picture of a Free Mason formed out of the Mason's symbols, [33] we find that on the cover of the Bible that forms his trunk is a triangle with the Hebrew letter "gimmel," equivalent to our G. "Gimmel" has the numerical value of three. Further food for thought.

In the T.B. of this degree we find the two great columns that stood before the entrance of the Temple: Yachin (yah-heen) and Boaz (boh-a'hz). According to the Biblical story, they were hollow, cast in bronze, and held large capitals with various ornaments. In Masonic tradition, however, the pillars, or columns, are topped with globes, one representing the earth and the other, the starry canopy of the heavens, or sometimes an armillary sphere. [34]

The reason for erecting these pillars is uncertain. Some scholars consider them simply abodes of the divinity, claiming that standing stones (menhirs) common in many parts of the world were worshiped as such. Stones erected as memorials are mentioned several times in the Bible. Egyptian obelisks, according to Herodotus, were erected to honor the sun.

Masonic literature also mentions that the columns in Jerusalem were memorials for the pillars of fire and cloud that accompanied the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert, while escaping from Egyptian bondage. Thus, the columns represent Divine Providence. The literal meaning of their names is "Shall establish" and "In strength." The possible explanation for their names is a reference to the verse that says: "In strength will I establish this mine house that it may stand forever."

Brother R.B.Y. Scott suggests that the names refer to the inscription engraved on the top of the columns:

"May the L-rd establish the throne of David and His kingdom for his seed forever."

and also:

"In the strength of the L-rd shall he rejoice."

The conjoined columns, then, denote stability. "That stability of character and of purpose which should be apparent in the life of the Freemason who would stand fast in the faith. He must be stable in friendship ... he must be stable to withstand the assaults of evil ... he must be stable in the defense of truth and honor so that men, seeing him and testing him, may learn what Freemasonry is."20

To conclude this section of my lecture, I would like to explain that the Hebrew word shibbolet (sheebohleht), connected with this degree, has a double meaning: both as an ear of corn, and a current of water. There is a saying in Hebrew that uses a play on the double meaning of the word, saying that a drowning man will clutch at a straw.

The Third Degree T.B.

As could be assumed, the T.B. of the Master's Degree bears reference to Hiram's Legend. In a few words, I will remind you that the legend relates the murder of Hiram Abiv, the architect and builder of Jerusalem's Temple, by three ruffians. They used building tools to strike him down. After killing him, they disposed of the body burying it and putting a branch of acacia on top to mark the place. The central image in all boards is either a grave or a coffin. The grave may be open or closed, the coffin may be closed, or it may be open, showing the body inside. The other central element is always the branch of Acacia. [35, 36]

The Acacia, shittim (sheeteem) in Hebrew, is an evergreen that holds a place of honor in the Bible. Of its wood was built the Tabernacle by Moses, to hold the sacred Tablets of the Law. In chapter 26 alone, the shittim-wood is mentioned no less than four times, specifying its use to make the planks to cover the tabernacle, the bars to carry it, the columns to stand upon and the five columns at the entrance of the Sanctuary, that supported the curtain rod.

In Freemasonry, the acacia symbolizes eternal life and the resurrection of the dead. In antiquity, acacia was considered to be incorruptible. Its name is a Greek word that means innocent or guiltless.

The most important thing that must remember the Mason who has gone through the third-degree ceremony of "exaltation" is that he has seen the acacia.

Around the grave or coffin are depicted the tools of the degree, both those appearing in current rituals (compasses, square, etc.) and those no longer in use, such as the beehive and the trowel.

Here is one design, reproduced by Brother the Rev. N.B. Cryer.21 [37] The beehive represents industry — Masons, as we know, consider work to be an honorable occupation. This was a revolutionary idea in the 17th century. As for the trowel, since it is used to spread plaster over a wall, covering any imperfections, it symbolizes the fraternal spirit that must prevail among Masons, helping to excuse any possible blemishes of character. This picture also has some designs that have vanished in present-day boards, such as the Tablet of the Law, both the hourglass and the scythe representing time, or rather the fleeting nature of life. Noah's ark has now been transferred to a side degree (Royal Ark Mariners). The heart pierced by a sword represents Hiram. The tools on top are the working tools of a Master Mason, while those in the bottom are the tools used to kill the Master Architect. The letters in cipher are HAB, M, B, and AL 3000, i.e. Anno Lucis 3000, equivalent to 1000 B.C.E., the year when traditionally King Solomon's Temple was built. All this, please remember, is symbolic. The dates do not correspond with present archeological findings. Masonic cipher is usually read from right to left, as in Hebrew.

Another version of the Third Degree T.B., dated 1850, appears in Harry Carr's The Freemason at Work.22 [38]

It shows an open grave with the coffin inside and the shade of the corpse. At the side of the grave is a sort of tombstone with a Hebrew inscription reading:

"The Holy Temple of Jerusalem was built by King Solomon of Israel, Hiram King of Tyre and Hiram of the tribe of Naftali, the Builder, in the year 3000."

A similar stone on the left side is written in Masonic cipher, with the letters T, C, HAB, AL 3000, MB, MB, CCC and FFZ. All these abbreviations are quite clear: T and C refer to Tubal Cain, the artificer on copper and iron, parallel to Vulcan in Greek mythology, connected with the Third Degree. HAB — as already explained — is the name of the Architect, AL 3000 the year the Temple was built, CCC according to Carr represent Chalk, Charcoal and Clay, three materials used by the Master Mason, while the last three letters, again according to Carr, represent Freedom, Fervency, and Zeal. With all due respect to the late Bro. Carr, I suggest that they actually refer to Fervency, Fastness and Zeal, because that is the motto appearing in 18th century rituals for the Third Degree.

The three letters "heh," the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, are common abbreviations for the Tetragammaton, the unpronounceable name of G-d. The "heh" is not the first letter of the Tetragammaton (which is yod-heh-vav-heh) but rather the initial of the word "Hashem" (hahshehm) (the Name), which is — again — a metaphoric reference to the name of the L-rd. Religious Jews, fearful of mispronouncing the sacred name, use periphrases such as Adonai (ahdohnahy) (my L-rd) or Hashem, the letter heh or the letter yod. The three letters heh are sometimes represented by three numbers 5, they also remind us of the legend, about the fifteen Fellowcrafts who went searching for Hiram Abiv. They separated into three groups of five, going out from the three entrances to the Temple.

While in the first and second degree Tracing Board the East is at the top, indicating the direction of travel of the Apprentice and Fellowcraft, here the West is at the top, showing that the Master Mason travels westward to spread the knowledge he has acquired.

The stele on the right shows the pentacle, perhaps a reference to the Five points of Fellowship, while that on the left depicts the Theorem of Pythagoras, which at present is a symbol of the Past Master of a Lodge.

A final example [39], by J. Bowring in 1819, shows the coffin without a body, but it does include the Tablets of the Law, the urn (which, in Masonic tradition, held Hiram Abiv's heart), and interestingly, a circle with five points, obviosuly referring to the pentacle, and the point within a circle. The Hebrew letters below the skull are, reading right to left, M, B, T, and C.

To conclude, I must point out that many of the same symbols appearing in the Tracing Boards were used also in the painted aprons so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as in diplomas, lodge summons, medals, plates, and sundry items. A complete study of Masonic iconography is still to be attempted.


1.  "The Evolution and Development of the Tracing or Lodge Board," Ars Quatuor Coronatorum (hereinafter AQC), Volume 29 (1916), pages 243 and following, and 275 and following.
2.  "Tracing Boards - Their Development and their Designers," AQC, Vol. 75 (1962).
3.  "Some Thoughts on the History of the Tracing Boards," presented at the Vancouver Grand Masonic Day, October 6, 1999. Can be consulted on the web site of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon:
4.  Dring, op. cit., p. 246.
5.  Nicola Coldstream, Medieval Craftsman Masons and Sculptors, University of Toronto Press, p. 31.
6.  C.A. Newham, The Astronomical Significance of Stonehenge, Gwent, Wales, 1972.
7.  Meir Ronnen, "Cartography of Faith," Jerusalem Post, 9.11.2001, p. B14.
8.  W. Kirk MacNulty, "Masonic Tracing Boards and the Western Metaphysical Tradition,"
9.  J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, Dorset Press, New York, 1971 (1991), Plate XXVI.
10.  "Jacob's Ladder in Masonic Iconography," AQC, Vol. 101 (1988).
11.  W. Kirk MacNulty, ibid.
12.  E-mail to the PSOC list, 8.7.2001.
13.  De circulo physico quadrato, pp. 27ff., quoted by C.G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, Routledge & Kegal Paul, London, 1983, pp. 148-149.
14.  Physica Trithemii, p. 39i.
15.  C.G. Jung, op. cit., p. 151.
16.  David Wells, The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers, 1986, p. 10.
17.  ibid.
18.  A.L. Shane, "The Mystery of the Winding Staircase," AQC, Vol. 81 (1968), pp. 340-348 and Edgar Jones, "The Mysteries and the Winding Staircase," AQC, Vol. 103 (1990), pp. 169-174.
19.  See, for instance, Matila C. Ghyka, Le Nombre d'Or, 2 vols., Gallimard, 1931, 13th edition.
20.  William Harvey, "The Pillars of Freemasonry - Their Origin and Meaning," leaflet, Dundee, 1944.
21.  Masonic Halls of England - The South, Lewis Masonic, 1989, p. 13.
22.  Private Edition, London, 1976, p. 325. A revised and augmented edition has been issued by Lewis Masonic.