Chest Lid with Masonic Painting
Open to reveal symbols of Freemasonry
Once hidden on the underside of a chest lid, this Masonic painting is rich with the symbols of Freemasonry. The chest may have been used to hold personal items or to store meeting and ritual supplies in a lodge.
Freemasonry is an organization of people who come together as brothers to help each other and their broader community. It traces its roots to 1600s stonemasons in Scotland and England who joined together in guilds, groups of artisans that supported each other in their trade. Freemasonry came to North America in the early 1700s. Today there are about six million members worldwide.
Members believe the teachings of Freemasonry help them become better people. They learn the teachings through a series of three “degrees.” Each degree is earned through the study of allegories, stories or pictures that can be interpreted to reveal hidden meanings. Receiving his third degree, a man becomes a “Master Mason.” He can then choose to join other Masonic groups, like The Scottish Rite, that offers more degrees.
When members raised the lid of the chest, they would have seen this painting and been reminded of the Masonic values communicated through its symbols.
The all-seeing eye at the top of the painting signified watchfulness. The two columns are a reference to the entrance to King Solomon’s temple in the Bible. Individually they represent strength and establishment. The trowel on the far left represents a common masonry tool used to spread cement, symbolic of the cement that unites Masons in brotherly love. The beehive on the right symbolizes industry and hard work.
In the middle is a combination of symbols — the compass and builders square paired with a 24in gauge ruler on an ashlar with acacia leaves. Many of these items are common tools used in building. Within the Freemason organization they have added meaning. The square and compass overlapped together are synonymous with the fraternity of Freemasons. The compass and the circle it draws contain the principal tenets of Freemasonry — friendship, morality, and brotherly love. The square, as the tool that builders use to square their work, is an instrument that governs all the actions of Freemasons and represents honesty, fairness, and virtue. The square balancing on the smooth ashlar represents the state of perfection achieved through virtuous education. The acacia branch is a symbol of immortality. The 24in gauge stands for 24 hours in a day, divided equally between God, work, and rest.
American Folk Art Museum, New York
Time Period: 1821 - 1834
Exhibit: Mystery And Benevolence
This artifact is not on view.