The Symbolism of Freemasonry/Chapter XXIII

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The Symbolism of Freemasonry by Albert Mackey
Chapter XXIII
Chapter XXIII.
Symbolism of the Corner-Stone.

We come next, in a due order of precedence, to the consideration of the symbolism connected with an important ceremony in the ritual of the first degree of Masonry, which refers to the north-east corner of the lodge. In this ceremony the candidate becomes the representative of a spiritual corner-stone. And hence, to thoroughly comprehend the true meaning of the emblematic ceremony, it is essential that we should investigate the symbolism of the corner-stone.

The corner-stone,[1] as the foundation on which the entire building is supposed to rest, is, of course, the most important stone in the whole edifice. It is, at least, so considered by operative masons. It is laid with impressive ceremonies; the assistance of speculative masons is often, and always ought to be, invited, to give dignity to the occasion; and the event is viewed by the workmen as an important era in the construction of the edifice.[2]

In the rich imagery of Orientalism, the corner-stone is frequently referred to as the appropriate symbol of a chief or prince who is the defence and bulwark of his people, and more particularly in Scripture, as denoting that promised Messiah who was to be the sure prop and support of all who should put their trust in his divine mission.[3]

To the various properties that are necessary to constitute a true corner-stone,--its firmness and durability, its perfect form, and its peculiar position as the connecting link between the walls,--we must attribute the important character that it has assumed in the language of symbolism. Freemasonry, which alone, of all existing institutions, has preserved this ancient and universal language, could not, as it may well be supposed, have neglected to adopt the corner-stone among its most cherished and impressive symbols; and hence it has referred to it many of its most significant lessons of morality and truth.

I have already alluded to that peculiar mode of masonic symbolism by which the speculative mason is supposed to be engaged in the construction of a spiritual temple, in imitation of, or, rather, in reference to, that material one which was erected by his operative predecessors at Jerusalem. Let us again, for a few moments, direct our attention to this important fact, and revert to the connection which originally existed between the operative and speculative divisions of Freemasonry. This is an essential introduction to any inquiry into the symbolism of the corner-stone.

The difference between operative and speculative Masonry is simply this--that while the former was engaged in the construction of a material temple, formed, it is true, of the most magnificent materials which the quarries of Palestine, the mountains of Lebanon, and the golden shores of Ophir could contribute, the latter occupies itself in the erection of a spiritual house,--a house not made with hands,--in which, for stones and cedar, and gold and precious stones, are substituted the virtues of the heart, the pure emotions of the soul, the warm affections gushing forth from the hidden fountains of the spirit, so that the very presence of Jehovah, our Father and our God, shall be enshrined within us as his Shekinah was in the holy of holies of the material temple at Jerusalem.

The Speculative Mason, then, if he rightly comprehends the scope and design of his profession, is occupied, from his very first admission into the order until the close of his labors and his life,--and the true mason's labor ends only with his life,--in the construction, the adornment, and the completion of this spiritual temple of his body. He lays its foundation in a firm belief and an unshaken confidence in the wisdom, power, and goodness of God. This is his first step. Unless his trust is in God, and in him only, he can advance no further than the threshold of initiation. And then he prepares his materials with the gauge and gavel of Truth, raises the walls by the plumb-line of Rectitude, squares his work with the square of Virtue, connects the whole with the cement of Brotherly Love, and thus skilfullv erects the living edifice of thoughts, and words, and deeds, in accordance with the designs laid down by the Master Architect of the universe in the great Book of Revelation.

The aspirant for masonic light--the Neophyte--on his first entrance within our sacred porch, prepares himself for this consecrated labor of erecting within his own bosom a fit dwelling-place for the Divine Spirit, and thus commences the noble work by becoming himself the corner-stone on which this spiritual edifice is to be erected.

Here, then, is the beginning of the symbolism of the corner-stone; and it is singularly curious to observe how every portion of the archetype has been made to perform its appropriate duty in thoroughly carrying out the emblematic allusions.

As, for example, this symbolic reference of the corner-stone of a material edifice to a mason, when, at his first initiation, he commences the intellectual task of erecting a spiritual temple in his heart, is beautifully sustained in the allusions to all the various parts and qualities which are to be found in a "well-formed, true and trusty" corner-stone.[4] Its form and substance are both seized by the comprehensive grasp of the symbolic science.

Let us trace this symbolism in its minute details. And, first, as to the form of the corner-stone.

The corner-stone of an edifice must be perfectly square on its surfaces, lest, by a violation of this true geometric figure, the walls to be erected upon it should deviate from the required line of perpendicularity which can alone give strength and proportion to the building.

Perfectly square on its surfaces, it is, in its form and solid contents, a cube. Now, the square and the cube are both important and significant symbols.

The square is an emblem of morality, or the strict performance of every duty.[5] Among the Greeks, who were a highly poetical and imaginative people, the square was deemed a figure of perfection, and the [Greek: a)nê\r tetra/gônos]--"the square or cubical man," as the words may be translated--was a term used to designate a man of unsullied integrity. Hence one of their most eminent metaphysicians[6] has said that "he who valiantly sustains the shocks of adverse fortune, demeaning himself uprightly, is truly good and of a square posture, without reproof; and he who would assume such a square posture should often subject himself to the perfectly square test of justice and integrity."

The cube, in the language of symbolism, denotes truth.[7] Among the pagan mythologists, Mercury, or Hermes, was always represented by a cubical stone, because he was the type of truth,[8] and the same form was adopted by the Israelites in the construction of the tabernacle, which was to be the dwelling-place of divine truth.

And, then, as to its material: This, too, is an essential element of all symbolism. Constructed of a material finer and more polished than that which constitutes the remainder of the edifice, often carved with appropriate devices and fitted for its distinguished purpose by the utmost skill of the sculptor's art, it becomes the symbol of that beauty of holiness with which the Hebrew Psalmist has said that we are to worship Jehovah.[9]

The ceremony, then, of the north-east corner of the lodge, since it derives all its typical value from this symbolism of the corner-stone, was undoubtedly intended to portray, in this consecrated language, the necessity of integrity and stability of conduct, of truthfulness and uprightness of character, and of purity and holiness of life, which, just at that time and in that place, the candidate is most impressively charged to maintain.

But there is also a symbolism about the position of the corner-stone, which is well worthy of attention. It is familiar to every one,--even to those who are without the pale of initiation,--that the custom of laying the corner-stones of public buildings has always been performed by the masonic order with peculiar and impressive ceremonies, and that this stone is invariably deposited in the north-east corner of the foundation of the intended structure. Now, the question naturally suggests itself, Whence does this ancient and invariable usage derive its origin? Why may not the stone be deposited in any other corner or portion of the edifice, as convenience or necessity may dictate? The custom of placing the foundation-stone in the north-east corner must have been originally adopted for some good and sufficient reason; for we have a right to suppose that it was not an arbitrary selection.[10] Was it in reference to the ceremony which takes place in the lodge? Or is that in reference to the position of the material stone? No matter which has the precedence in point of time, the principle is the same. The position of the stone in the north-east corner of the building is altogether symbolic, and the symbolism exclusively alludes to certain doctrines which are taught in the speculative science of Masonry.

The interpretation, I conceive, is briefly this: Every Speculative Mason is familiar with the fact that the east, as the source of material light, is a symbol of his own order, which professes to contain within its bosom the pure light of truth. As, in the physical world, the morning of each day is ushered into existence by the reddening dawn of the eastern sky, whence the rising sun dispenses his illuminating and prolific rays to every portion of the visible horizon, warming the whole earth with his embrace of light, and giving new-born life and energy to flower and tree, and beast and man, who, at the magic touch, awake from the sleep of darkness, so in the moral world, when intellectual night was, in the earliest days, brooding over the world, it was from the ancient priesthood living in the east that those lessons of God, of nature, and of humanity first emanated, which, travelling westward, revealed to man his future destiny, and his dependence on a superior power. Thus every new and true doctrine, coming from these "wise men of the east," was, as it were, a new day arising, and dissipating the clouds of intellectual darkness and error. It was a universal opinion among the ancients that the first learning came from the east; and the often-quoted line of Bishop Berkeley, that--

"Westward the course of empire takes its way"--

is but the modern utterance of an ancient thought, for it was always believed that the empire of truth and knowledge was advancing from the east to the west.

Again: the north, as the point in the horizon which is most remote from the vivifying rays of the sun when at his meridian height, has, with equal metaphorical propriety, been called the place of darkness, and is, therefore, symbolic of the profane world, which has not yet been penetrated and illumined by the intellectual rays of masonic light. All history concurs in recording the fact that, in the early ages of the world, its northern portion was enveloped in the most profound moral and mental darkness. It was from the remotest regions of Northern Europe that those barbarian hordes "came down like the wolf on the fold," and devastated the fair plains of the south, bringing with them a dark curtain of ignorance, beneath whose heavy folds the nations of the world lay for centuries overwhelmed. The extreme north has ever been, physically and intellectually, cold, and dark, and dreary. Hence, in Masonry, the north has ever been esteemed the place of darkness; and, in obedience to this principle, no symbolic light is allowed to illumine the northern part of the lodge.

The east, then, is, in Masonry, the symbol of the order, and the north the symbol of the profane world.

Now, the spiritual corner-stone is deposited in the north-east corner of the lodge, because it is symbolic of the position of the neophyte, or candidate, who represents it in his relation to the order and to the world. From the profane world he has just emerged. Some of its imperfections are still upon him; some of its darkness is still about him; he as yet belongs in part to the north. But he is striving for light and truth; the pathway upon which he has entered is directed towards the east. His allegiance, if I may use the word, is divided. He is not altogether a profane, nor altogether a mason. If he were wholly in the world, the north would be the place to find him--the north, which is the reign of darkness. If he were wholly in the order,--a Master Mason,--the east would have received him--the east, which is the place of light. But he is neither; he is an Apprentice, with some of the ignorance of the world cleaving to him, and some of the light of the order beaming upon him. And hence this divided allegiance--this double character--this mingling of the departing darkness of the north with the approaching brightness of the east--is well expressed, in our symbolism, by the appropriate position of the spiritual corner-stone in the north-east corner of the lodge. One surface of the stone faces the north, and the other surface faces the east. It is neither wholly in the one part nor wholly in the other, and in so far it is a symbol of initiation not fully developed--that which is incomplete and imperfect, and is, therefore, fitly represented by the recipient of the first degree, at the very moment of his initiation.[11]

But the strength and durability of the corner-stone are also eminently suggestive of symbolic ideas. To fulfil its design as the foundation and support of the massive building whose erection it precedes, it should be constructed of a material which may outlast all other parts of the edifice, so that when that "eternal ocean whose waves are years" shall have ingulfed all who were present at the construction of the building in the vast vortex of its ever-flowing current; and when generation after generation shall have passed away, and the crumbling stones of the ruined edifice shall begin to attest the power of time and the evanescent nature of all human undertakings, the corner-stone will still remain to tell, by its inscriptions, and its form, and its beauty, to every passer-by, that there once existed in that, perhaps then desolate, spot, a building consecrated to some noble or some sacred purpose by the zeal and liberality of men who now no longer live.

So, too, do this permanence and durability of the corner-stone, in contrast with the decay and ruin of the building in whose foundations it was placed, remind the mason that when this earthly house of his tabernacle shall have passed away, he has within him a sure foundation of eternal life--a corner-stone of immortality--an emanation from that Divine Spirit which pervades all nature, and which, therefore, must survive the tomb, and rise, triumphant and eternal, above the decaying dust of death and the grave.[12]

It is in this way that the student of masonic symbolism is reminded by the corner-stone--by its form, its position, and its permanence--of significant doctrines of duty, and virtue, and religious truth, which it is the great object of Masonry to teach.

But I have said that the material corner-stone is deposited in its appropriate place with solemn rites and ceremonies, for which the order has established a peculiar ritual. These, too, have a beautiful and significant symbolism, the investigation of which will next attract our attention.

And here it may be observed, in passing, that the accompaniment of such an act of consecration to a particular purpose, with solemn rites and ceremonies, claims our respect, from the prestige that it has of all antiquity. A learned writer on symbolism makes, on this subject, the following judicious remarks, which may be quoted as a sufficient defence of our masonic ceremonies:--

"It has been an opinion, entertained in all past ages, that by the performance of certain acts, things, places, and persons acquire a character which they would not have had without such performances. The reason is plain: certain acts signify firmness of purpose, which, by consigning the object to the intended use, gives it, in the public opinion, an accordant character. This is most especially true of things, places, and persons connected with religion and religious worship. After the performance of certain acts or rites, they are held to be altogether different from what they were before; they acquire a sacred character, and in some instances a character absolutely divine. Such are the effects imagined to be produced by religious dedication."[13]

The stone, therefore, thus properly constructed, is, when it is to be deposited by the constituted authorities of our order, carefully examined with the necessary implements of operative masonry,--the square, the level, and the plumb,--and declared to be "well-formed, true, and trusty." This is not a vain nor unmeaning ceremony. It teaches the mason that his virtues are to be tested by temptation and trial, by suffering and adversity, before they can be pronounced by the Master Builder of souls to be materials worthy of the spiritual building of eternal life, fitted "as living stones, for that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." But if he be faithful, and withstand these trials,--if he shall come forth from these temptations and sufferings like pure gold from the refiner's fire,--then, indeed, shall he be deemed "well-formed, true, and trusty," and worthy to offer "unto the Lord an offering in righteousness."

In the ceremony of depositing the corner-stone, the sacred elements of masonic consecration are then produced, and the stone is solemnly set apart by pouring corn, wine, and oil upon its surface. Each of these elements has a beautiful significance in our symbolism.

Collectively, they allude to the Corn of Nourishment, the Wine of Refreshment, and the Oil of Joy, which are the promised rewards of a faithful and diligent performance of duty, and often specifically refer to the anticipated success of the undertaking whose incipiency they have consecrated. They are, in fact, types and symbols of all those abundant gifts of Divine Providence for which we are daily called upon to make an offering of our thanks, and which are enumerated by King David, in his catalogue of blessings, as "wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart."

"Wherefore, my brethren," says Harris, "do you carry corn, wine, and oil in your processions, but to remind you that in the pilgrimage of human life you are to impart a portion of your bread to feed the hungry, to send a cup of your wine to cheer the sorrowful, and to pour the healing oil of your consolation into the wounds which sickness hath made in the bodies, or affliction rent in the hearts, of your fellow-travellers?"[14]

But, individually, each of these elements of consecration has also an appropriate significance, which is well worth investigation.

Corn, in the language of Scripture, is an emblem of the resurrection, and St. Paul, in that eloquent discourse which is so familiar to all, as a beautiful argument for the great Christian doctrine of a future life, adduces the seed of grain, which, being sown, first dieth, and then quickeneth, as the appropriate type of that corruptible which must put on incorruption, and of that mortal which must assume immortality. But, in Masonry, the sprig of acacia, for reasons purely masonic, has been always adopted as the symbol of immortality, and the ear of corn is appropriated as the symbol of plenty. This is in accordance with the Hebrew derivation of the word, as well as with the usage of all ancient nations. The word dagan, which signifies corn, is derived from the verb dagah, to increase, to multiply, and in all the ancient religions the horn or vase, filled with fruits and with grain, was the recognized symbol of plenty. Hence, as an element of consecration, corn is intended to remind us of those temporal blessings of life and health, and comfortable support, which we derive from the Giver of all good, and to merit which we should strive, with "clean hands and a pure heart," to erect on the corner-stone of our initiation a spiritual temple, which shall be adorned with the "beauty of holiness."

Wine is a symbol of that inward and abiding comfort with which the heart of the man who faithfully performs his part on the great stage of life is to be refreshed; and as, in the figurative language of the East, Jacob prophetically promises to Judah, as his reward, that he shall wash his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of the grape, it seems intended, morally, to remind us of those immortal refreshments which, when the labors of this earthly lodge are forever closed, we shall receive in the celestial lodge above, where the G.A.O.T.U. forever presides.

Oil is a symbol of prosperity, and happiness, and joy. The custom of anointing every thing or person destined for a sacred purpose is of venerable antiquity.[15] The statues of the heathen deities, as well as the altars on which the sacrifices were offered to them, and the priests who presided over the sacred rites, were always anointed with perfumed ointment, as a consecration of them to the objects of religious worship.

When Jacob set up the stone on which he had slept in his journey to Padan-aram, and where he was blessed with the vision of ascending and descending angels, he anointed it with oil, and thus consecrated it as an altar to God. Such an inunction was, in ancient times, as it still continues to be in many modern countries and contemporary religions, a symbol of the setting apart of the thing or person so anointed and consecrated to a holy purpose.

Hence, then, we are reminded by this last impressive ceremony, that the cultivation of virtue, the practice of duty, the resistance of temptation, the submission to suffering, the devotion to truth, the maintenance of integrity, and all those other graces by which we strive to fit our bodies, as living stones, for the spiritual building of eternal life, must, after all, to make the object effectual and the labor successful, be consecrated by a holy obedience to God's will and a firm reliance on God's providence, which alone constitute the chief corner-stone and sure foundation, on which any man can build with the reasonable hope of a prosperous issue to his work.

It may be noticed, in concluding this topic, that the corner-stone seems to be peculiarly a Jewish symbol. I can find no reference to it in any of the ancient pagan rites, and the EBEN PINAH, the corner-stone, which is so frequently mentioned in Scripture as the emblem of an important personage, and most usually, in the Old Testament, of the expected Messiah, appears, in its use in Masonry, to have had, unlike almost every other symbol of the order, an exclusively temple origin.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Thus defined: "The stone which lies at the corner of two walls, and unites them; the principal stone, and especially the stone which forms the corner of the foundation of an edifice."--Webster.
  2. Among the ancients the corner-stone of important edifices was laid with impressive ceremonies. These are well described by Tacitus, in his history of the rebuilding of the Capitol. After detailing the preliminary ceremonies which consisted in a procession of vestals, who with chaplets of flowers encompassed the ground and consecrated it by libations of living water, he adds that, after solemn prayer, Helvidius, to whom the care of rebuilding the Capitol had been committed, "laid his hand upon the fillets that adorned the foundation stone, and also the cords by which it was to be drawn to its place. In that instant the magistrates, the priests, the senators, the Roman knights, and a number of citizens, all acting with one effort and general demonstrations of joy, laid hold of the ropes and dragged the ponderous load to its destined spot. They then threw in ingots of gold and silver, and other metals, which had never been melted in the furnace, but still retained, untouched by human art, their first formation in the bowels of the earth."--Tac. Hist., 1. iv. c. 53, Murphy's transl.
  3. As, for instance, in Psalm cxviii. 22, "The stone which the builders refused is become the head-stone of the corner," which, Clarke says, "seems to have been originally spoken of David, who was at first rejected by the Jewish rulers, but was afterwards chosen by the Lord to be the great ruler of his people in Israel;" and in Isaiah xxviii. 16, "Behold, I lay in Zion, for a foundation, a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone, a sure foundation," which clearly refers to the promised Messiah.
  4. In the ritual "observed at laying the foundation-stone of public structures," it is said, "The principal architect then presents the working tools to the Grand Master, who applies the plumb, square, and level to the stone, in their proper positions, and pronounces it to be well-formed, true, and trusty."--WEBB'S Monitor, p. 120.
  5. "The square teaches us to regulate our conduct by the principles of morality and virtue."--Ritual of the E. A. Degree.--The old York lectures define the square thus: "The square is the theory of universal duty, and consisteth in two right lines, forming an angle of perfect sincerity, or ninety degrees; the longest side is the sum of the lengths of the several duties which we owe to all men. And every man should be agreeable to this square, when perfectly finished."
  6. Aristotle.
  7. "The cube is a symbol of truth, of wisdom, and moral perfection. The new Jerusalem, promised in the Apocalypse, is equal in length, breadth, and height. The Mystical city ought to be considered as a new church, where divine wisdom will reign."--OLIVER'S Landmarks, ii. p. 357.--And he might have added, where eternal truth will be present.
  8. In the most primitive times, all the gods appear to have been represented by cubical blocks of stone; and Pausanias says that he saw thirty of these stones in the city of Pharae, which represented as many deities. The first of the kind, it is probable, were dedicated to Hermes, whence they derived their name of "Hermae."
  9. "Give unto Jehovah the glory due unto His name; worship Jehovah in the beauty of holiness."--Psalm xxix. 2.
  10. It is at least a singular coincidence that in the Brahminical religion great respect was paid to the north-east point of the heavens. Thus it is said in the Institutes of Menu, "If he has any incurable disease, let him advance in a straight path towards the invincible north-east point, feeding on water and air till his mortal frame totally decay, and his soul become united with the Supreme."
  11. This symbolism of the double position of the corner-stone has not escaped the attention of the religious symbologists. Etsius, an early commentator, in 1682, referring to the passage in Ephesians ii. 20, says, "That is called the corner-stone, or chief corner-stone, which is placed in the extreme angle of a foundation, conjoining and holding together two walls of the pile, meeting from different quarters. And the apostle not only would be understood by this metaphor that Christ is the principal foundation of the whole church, but also that in him, as in a corner-stone, the two peoples, Jews and Gentiles, are conjoined, and so conjoined as to rise together into one edifice, and become one church." And Julius Firmicius, who wrote in the sixteenth century, says that Christ is called the corner-stone, because, being placed in the angle of the two walls, which are the Old and the New Testament, he collects the nations into one fold. "Lapis sanctus, i.e. Christus, aut fidei fundamenta sustentat aut in angulo positus duorum parietum membra aequata moderatione conjungit, i.e., Veteris et Novi Testamenti in unum colligit gentes."--De Errore profan. Religionum, chap. xxi.
  12. This permanence of position was also attributed to those cubical stones among the Romans which represented the statues of the god Terminus. They could never lawfully be removed from the spot which they occupied. Hence, when Tarquin was about to build the temple of Jupiter, on the Capitoline Hill, all the shrines and statues of the other gods were removed from the eminence to make way for the new edifice, except that of Terminus, represented by a stone. This remained untouched, and was enclosed within the temple, to show, says Dudley, "that the stone, having been a personification of the God Supreme, could not be reasonably required to yield to Jupiter himself in dignity and power."--DUDLEY'S Naology, p 145.
  13. Dudley's Naology, p. 476.
  14. Masonic Discourses, Dis. iv. p. 81.
  15. "The act of consecration chiefly consisted in the unction, which was a ceremony derived from the most primitive antiquity. The sacred tabernacle, with all the vessels and utensils, as also the altar and the priests themselves, were consecrated in this manner by Moses, at the divine command. It is well known that the Jewish kings and prophets were admitted to their several offices by unction. The patriarch Jacob, by the same right, consecrated the altars which he made use of; in doing which it is more probable that he followed the tradition of his forefathers, than that he was the author of this custom. The same, or something like it, was also continued down to the times of Christianity."--POTTER'S Archaeologia Graeca, b. ii. p. 176.