Masonic Parlante1 in a Canadian Temple of Democracy:
The Manitoba Legislative Building as Initiatory Theatre2
by Frank Albo
-- posted on this website in May 2006 --
1Masonic Parlante -- refers to a form of speaking which occurs in Masonic architecture which expresses itself through specific symbols, proportions, numbers, and iconography.
2Initiatory Theatre -- the building can be envisioned as a type of initiatory theatre directing its visitors through a three-part Masonic tour consisting of (a) solar protection in the Grand Staircase Hall, (b) Masonic initiation in the Rotunda, and (c) priestly ordination in the Lieutenant-Governor’s Reception Suite
Today, architecture is seen as a purely mechanical profession, one which employs a simple set of prescriptive rules of mathematics and geometry to achieve its aims. However, this view of architecture is a relatively modern convention having its roots in a quarrel waged between ‘ancients’ and ‘moderns’ in the last half of the seventeenth century. In his insightful book, Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science, Pérez-Gómez argues that the Scientific Revolution transformed the nature of architecture from a tradition based on mystical and numerological considerations into a technical exercise devoid of symbolic and transcendental associations. For Pérez-Gómez, architecture was thus plunged into a crisis of meaning as ‘blind technological intentionality’ converted the entire discipline from an art concerned with expression and mythology to a field in which rationality was its primary objective.
For Pérez-Gómez, architecture’s progressive reliance on reason and scientific positivism can be traced to the influential French architect, Nicolas-Louis Durand (1760-1834). Durand’s writings cultivated a “...Cartesian split between objective truth and subjective opinion, between mind and body, and [the] rejection of myth, poetry, and art as legitimate and primary forms of knowledge.” From this point forward, architecture became increasingly divorced from its esoteric origins and was transformed into a scientific exercise of formal explanations with utilitarian purposes. In the ensuing centuries, design was usurped by ‘technical specialists’ and engineers who “had little or no knowledge of society, its history and problems, and a loathing for humanities because their content was always ambiguous and practically impossible to formulate with mathematical certainty.” The materialistic revolution of architecture was accompanied by a retreat from classical proportional systems and their symbolic connotations in favour of mathematically derived rules whose chief aim was to ensure a more efficient and economic practice.
Against the background of Pérez-Gómez’s polarized view of history, a different story can be seen to emerge; one in which the esoteric and mystical application of architecture remain decidedly intact and unencumbered by the raging voices of scientific advocates and classical idealists. This sanctuary of esoteric architecture is found in the society of Freemasonry whose raison d'être placed mystical geometry and sacred architecture on holy ground. Amid the fervour of the late eighteenth century, a handful of significant Masonic architectural theorists played a crucial role in preserving a balance between the primacy of rationality and the growing search for truth beyond rational understanding.
One advocate in this regard was the Masonic antiquarian, Jean-Louis Viel de Saint Maux whose Lettres sur l'architecture des anciens et celle des modernes, dans lesquelles se trouve développé le génie symbolique qui préside aux monuments de l’antiquité (1787), posited a symbolic and allegorical history of architecture which showed a dependence on natural forces and agricultural bounty. Another important architect was the prolific writer and freemason, Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières (1721-93) who defined the role of architecture as an “expressive language” arguing that buildings could evoke human sensations because they could ‘speak to the mind and move the soul.’ Then, of course, there was the Masonic contrôleur of the king, Charles de Wailly (1730-98), who’s engraving of the Solomon’s Temple re-elaborated the earlier plans of Villalpanda and Fischer von Erlach “according to stages of Masonic ritual depicting the route of initiation in a grand sequence of stairs and open courtyards leading toward the sanctum itself.” And finally, teetering of the edge of genius and fantasy was the tormented visionary, Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1757-1826). His extraordinary drawing of a Lodge, called the Gothic House, illustrated a route based on an ancient Egyptian temple and involving complex mechanical automata to simulate initiation trials by Fire, Water, and Air. Lequeu’s esquisses were derived from descriptions in the Abbé Jean Terrasson’s novel Séthos (1731), the literary forerunner of Mozart’s Masonic masterpiece, Die Zauberflöte (1791).
Yet despite these important contributions, Freemasonry rarely gets more than a footnote in most discussions of architectural history. One outspoken contemporary revisionist is James Stevens Curl, who argues that the cultural and intellectual life of the Eighteenth century cannot be properly understood without accepting the centrality of Freemasonry, and even goes so far as to declare that Freemasonry is “the essence of Neoclassicism.” Freemasonry can also be shown to play a pivotal role on the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, the period’s most influential school of classical revivalism. Not only did the École’s curriculum of dessin rely heavily upon Egyptian precedents and Vitruvian theory (both prominent in Freemasonry), but many of its pundits were Freemasons. By the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Beaux-Arts style came to dominate the designs of government and municipal buildings throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Masonic ideas have also permeated the designs of parks, gardens, cemeteries, monuments, and mausolea. According to Anthony Vidler, between 1780 and the Revolution the spatial order of early lodges was gradually transformed by an increasing emphasis on the initiatory route and the allegorical representation of the landscape of the Elysian fields. The prominent French philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, proposed the natural landscape garden as the site for the regeneration of Mankind and the improvement of society as a whole. These routes, like those traversed by legendary initiates such as Persephone and Orpheus, were no longer confined to the space of the lodge building, but extended out into the public arena. Both McIntosh and Curl have shown how gardens and cemeteries, like those at Castle Howard, Pope’s Twickenham, Wörlitz near Dessau in Saxony, and Pére-Lachaise in Paris, were designed as moral lessons and motivated by the Masonic idea of the journey of initiation and reconstructed ideas of the Egyptian practice of passing through an open court.
For the freemasons of the eighteenth-century, the exemplars of ritual initiation were Egyptian, and it followed therefore that the ruins of their great temples were the remains of ancient ritual structures and prototypes. With ardent enthusiasm, the champions of Masonic iconography studied the forms of this architecture for any signs or patterns that might inform the development of the ritual procedures and higher Masonic grades. The Martinist mystic of Lyons, Jean-Baptiste Willermoz, even posited that the architecture of the Egypt had been deliberately constructed to affect the state of mind of the aspirant:
[The Egyptians] employed all their Emblems and allegories to exercise the intelligence of the Aspirants and prepare them for the development of the mysteries that were their object. Thus the Triangular form of the pyramids, which in Egypt cover the underground vaults destined for initiations, the form and number of the Routes that lead there, all the ceremonies that were their observed, offered to the aspirants a sense of mystery, relating to the principal object of initiation.
With these ideas in mind: (a) architecture as moving the soul (Le Camus); (b) the Temple as a blueprint for initiation (de Wailly); (c) and the Egyptian initiatory route (Willermoz), I begin to approach my present study on the Masonic architecture of the Manitoba Legislative Building. Taken in isolation, the iconography of this extraordinary capitol remains puzzling and altogether abstruse, for it celebrates nearly every religious tradition that prevailed in the centuries and millennium before its construction. It contains statuary of apotropaic pagan divinities, allusions to forgotten Pharaohs, and has a room which parallels the dimensions of the sanctum sanctorum of Solomon’s Temple. This paper seeks to address these ‘anomalous’ features as intrinsic elements of an underlying esoteric program. Specifically, I will show how the building can be envisioned as a type of initiatory theatre directing its visitors through a three-part Masonic tour consisting of (a) solar protection in the Grand Staircase Hall, (b) Masonic initiation in the Rotunda, and (c) priestly ordination in the Lieutenant-Governor’s Reception Suite. But before making this occult voyage through the building, it is important to first depict the cultural climate into which the building was erected; a time when magical romanticism and esoteric philosophies were the order of the day.
Occultism and the École des Beaux-Arts
At the turn of the twentieth century, Winnipeg in the Manitoba prairies was rife with secret societies and spiritualist pursuits. Not only were séances in the home of Dr. T.G. Hamilton gaining infamy as spiritualists Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King (1874-1950) gathered around for table rappings, but in the city’s Exchange District a coterie of local magicians were developing what would later become one of the world’s largest magical societies, The International Brotherhood of Magicians. As Freemasonry took centre-stage in civic life, there was a rapid increase of members amid government circles, and in less than a decade the Grand Lodge of Manitoba had almost doubled in size. One of the most telling signs of Freemasonry’s foothold in parliament was reflected in the fact that nearly the entire administration responsible for constructing the new provincial Legislature were members of the prestigious order.
Completed in 1920, the Manitoba Legislative Building was designed by the English architect, Frank W. Simon (1862-1933). Described by his biographers as a “tireless genius,” with an obsessive fascination of Renaissance architecture and the classical world, Simon brought a wealth of architectural expertise to the project; first as a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and also in commissioning some of Europe’s finest sculptors and painters, including the distinguished Belgian muralist, Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956), and the renowned Italian marble carvers, the Piccirilli Brothers. For decades, the Manitoba Legislature’s eccentric details have baffled and intrigued visitors with its busts of pagan deities, recumbent Egyptian sphinxes, cloven-hoofed satyrs, coiled snakes, ram-heads, cattle skulls, and decapitated head of Medusa. In addition, there are its puzzling numerological features – the constant repetition of the number thirteen evidenced in everything from stairs to lighting fixtures. Conventional responses have sought to explain these features as mere decorative embellishments, expressions of Greek revivalism and vogue Orientalism prevalent at the time. But perhaps the most puzzling feature of the building is the Golden Boy – a gilded image of Hermes fixed to the building’s exterior dome.
In early Masonic lore, Hermes is revered for the invention of everything known to the human intellect and for preserving the knowledge of the Mason’s craft and transmitting it to mankind. Identified as a kind of patron of Freemasonry, Hermes was extolled as the original fount of prophetic wisdom, the first teacher of science and philosophy, and the inventor of hieroglyphs. The term hermetic derives from name Hermes which has become virtually synonymous with magic, alchemy, astrology, miraculous powers, and wisdom. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Masonry became closely aligned with Hermeticism, exemplified with the once thriving Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the foremost magical order of the day founded in London in 1888 by William W. Westcott and Samuel MacGregor Mathers. The omnifarious nature Hermes even has him identified with national governance. A manuscript from 1659, housed in the Royal Society of London, draws a link between the wisdom of Hermes, proto-Freemasonry, and governmental rule:
This Craft…founded by worthy Kings and Princes and many other worshipful men prescribes dedication to the seven liberal arts, particularly geometry. Hermes taught it and he was “the father of Wisemen [who] found out the two pillars of Stone whereon the Sciences were written and taught them forth, and at the making of the Tower of Babylon there the craft of masonry found.
In the middle 1880’s when the aspiring English architect, Frank W. Simon, was undergoing his final examinations at the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris was a mecca of magical orders, and emerging branches of occult Freemasonry. After the death of Éliphas Lévi (1810-1875), the most influential occultist of the nineteenth-century, a new generation of occult pundits emerged: Stanislas de Guaïta, Papus, and the Catholic mage, Sar Joséphin Péladan. Péladan was particularly influential in artistic circles for organizing the Salons de la Rose + Croix (1892-1897). These extravagant art shows appealed to Parisian high society and promoted a new kind of art that aimed “to ruin realism, reform Latin taste, and create a school of idealist art.” Péladan proclaimed artists to be the chosen instrument of God’s revelation: “Artist, you are priest…Artist, you are king…Artist, you are magus.” This Parisian milieu of occult revivalism significantly influenced the Symbolist Movement, whose belief ‘that symbols act as gateways to higher reality,’ is a consistent theme in the work of Legislature muralist Augustus Vincent Tack (1870-1949).
The three major artistic contributors of the Legislature, Frank W. Simon, Augustus Vincent Tack (1870-1949), and the Golden Boy sculptor, Georges Gardet (1863-1939) were all students of the École des Beaux-Arts. Established in 1648, the École promoted art of classical antiquity, High Renaissance, and Baroque. The school imparted a style that drew heavily upon Egyptian aesthetics, often incorporating sphinxes, obelisks, and hieroglyphs into its designs. A Beaux-Arts education included a rigorous mix of history, archaeology, mathematics, and philosophy. Its theory of dessin was derived from Neoplatonic ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and Vitruvian notions of symmetria. Students entered into the atelier of a particular master they admired, a process that one historian describes as joining a “secret society,” not only were you never allowed in the precincts of another atelier, but your aim was to emulate the teachings of your own master. The École’s theory of design and its adherence to Egyptian precedents was influenced by Masonic architectural theorists of the eighteenth century, notably Abbé Marc Antoine Laugier (1711-1769), who wrote one of the seminal works of Neoclassicism.
As mentioned earlier, many professors working at the École were freemasons, including the school’s learned secrétaire perpétuel, Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849). In addition to being one of the most important writers of architectural theory in the eighteenth century, his monumental study of Egyptian architecture, De L’Architecture Égyptienne, Considérée Dans son origine ses principes et son goût, et comparée sous les mêmes rapports à l’Architecture Grecque (1803), set the benchmark for Egyptian archaeology and according to Vidler, evinces clear indebtedness to Masonic ideals. During this period of prolific Masonic creativity, Freemasonry becomes overt through a diffusion of architectural projects from initiatory gardens and Egyptian-inspired designs, to symbolic floor cloths and the founding of London’s Jerusalem Lodge No. 197 (1771) home to England’s most eminent architects and engineers.
Grand Staircase Hall – Room of Protection
And I think that the wise men of old, who made temples and statues in the wish that the gods should be present to them, looking to the nature of the All, had in mind that the nature of soul is everywhere easy to attract, but that if someone were to construct something sympathetic to it and able to receive a part of it, it would of all things receive soul most easily (Plotinus, Ennead 4.3.11).
Upon entering the Manitoba Legislature, one is confronted by a number of remarkable features which provide a fitting introduction to our Masonic itinerary. The most noticable feature are the two enormous bronze bison resting on stone pedestals which flank the Grand Staircase. Bison are a sacred animal to the Plains Indians of Manitoba, and in the ancient Near East, their close relative, the bull, were commonly found in similar posture at the entrances of palaces and temples. In Christopher McIntosh’s study of the visual language and sacred space of gardens, he notes that the entrances to Masonic gardens were flanked by “keepers of the threshold” represented in the form of effigies of gods or spirits. For McIntosh, creatures such as these mark the transition from the profane to the sacred.
Another curious feature of the room is its overt display of pagan divinities. In the keystone arch above the entrance to the hall is a carved head of the goddess of wisdom, Athena, whose embodiment in the form of a talismanic statuette, the palladium, guaranteed safety of to its possessor. Facing directly opposite Athena and adorning the keystone of the towering southern arch leading to the Rotunda is the head of Medusa girded by snakes. The symbol of the Gorgon’s head is attested in a variety of artifacts from vases, statuettes, ivories and coins to monumental architecture, such as the pediment relief at the temple of Corfu in Egypt (590 BCE), where the legend of Medusa’s chthonic power to ward off evil was first introduced.
In The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance, Joscelyn Godwin describes how Greco-Roman iconography suffused the visual arts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and how pagan images were designed to transform the soul and impart lessons of morality; an idea which closely parallels Le Camus two centuries later who sought similar aims by incorporating Vitruvian notions of decorum. Godwin’s exploration of the mythological symbolism of Renaissance gardens, describes how visitors are transported to an enchanted “trancelike atmosphere of suspended excitement beyond words or the rational mind,” via their journey through esoteric vistas adorned with pagan divinities. In effect, Godwin’s study continues the pionnering efforts of art historian, E.H. Gombrich who demonstrated how for Renaissance Neoplatonists the visual image was conceived of as having an inherent power which imparted to a ‘higher’ divine level of knowledge beyond the senses, reason and conceptual language. Along these Neoplatonic lines, the pagan images in the Staircase Hall can be seen as more than just classical ornaments, but rather, as symbolic icons bestowing protection and enabling the visitor to access to building’s more sacred precincts after having been properly purified of evil influences and forces.
On the subject of evil, the room’s most peculiar feature is that its internal dimensions measure 66.6 feet square, the digits [without the decimal point] which for almost two millenia have wreaked havoc upon Western imagination as its association to The Antichrist is derived from the bible’s most perplexing verse: “this calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast for it is the number of man. Its number is 666” (Rev. 13: 18). The question is: why would a building housing government representatives and enacting legislative power incorporate in its design a number tradionally affliated with the Antichrist? An insightful clue is provided by William Westcott, one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in a paper entitled, “The Number 666,” where the Victorian hierophant applies the rigors of historical and Kabbalistic erudition to the decipherment of the number and points us to a pertinent discussion which can be found in two major works of occult literature.
The first is the De Occulta Philosophia (1509) by the arch-magus Cornelius Agrippa, which identifies the number with the magic square of the sun, which is comprised of every number from 1 to 36 [666 is the sum of the digits from 1 to 36]. As the sun governed the 36 decans of the sky, it was fitting that the number 666 be assigned to the solar deity who ruled over the gods of Heaven and Earth. Here, Agrippa’s discussion of magic squares is in relation to the construction of talismans, magical objects which were thought to draw down celestial and super-celestial hierarchies. Upon the talisman are inscribed a series of figures representing the planets and signs in an ideal configuation, along with revelant numbers, characters, symbols, and the names of pertinent spiritual beings. For Agrippa, sun talismans are ideal for protection because they “drive away all the darkness.”
The second work is an enormously provocative treatise of theortetical architecture entitled The Canon: An Exposition of the Pagan Mystery Perpetuated in the Cabala as the Rule of All the Arts (1897), by the obscure English occultist, William Stirling. The work obtained considerable renoun among occultists at the time of its publication soliciting reviews from A.E. Waite and William W. Westcott, as well as the prolific British science-fiction novelist, H.G. Wells. Given the book’s high reputation and contemporary vogue, it is not unreasonable to assume that Simon, an avid reader of all things mysterious, had also been acquainted with the text. For a Masonic enclyclopedist of Waite’s stature, the book ‘contained vestiges for the extension of consciousness,’ and for Westcott the work was a frustrating oeuvre of occult scholarship “too abstruce and mathematical for general reader.” Like Agrippa, Stirling also connected the number 666 with the sun. His reasoning was that the name of the place where the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes determined the sun’s course in the ecliptic (Syene in Egypt) had the numerical value of 666.
In both accounts, we find that the Number of the Beast is stripped of its diabolical connotations and is equated with the protective virtue of the sun, which for Agrippa ‘is the very heart of heaven from which all good things come.’ The association of the sun with protection is further provided in a graphic account of solarian magic in De Pulchro, by Ficino’s disciple Francesco Cattani da Diacceto (1466-1522). Among other things, Diacceto proscribes wearing a mantle of gold, the sun’s color, burning incense made from heliotropic plants, and reciting invocations to the sun. Consistent with the Staircase Hall’s solar and protective theme, we find that above the room on the roof there are two recumbent Egyptian sphinxes. Upon their chests, they bear a hieroglyphic inscription which reads: “the everlasting manifestation of the sun god Ra, the good God who gives life”.
Interest in the sacred nature of hieroglyphs dates back to the artists and intellectuals of the fifteenth century who posited a theory of a prisca theologia inspired by a return to ancient sources and the Neoplatonic claim that images fostered communication with the divine. These interpretive methods were based on the belief that eternal truths had been concealed in Egyptian hieroglyphs, and that their meaning was inadequately expressed by mere words. For Renaissance Neoplatonists like Ficino, Egyptian hieroglyphs were understood by to be a pictorial method of representing pure and complete ideas, and for the architect Leon Battista Alberti, hieroglyphics were an alternative to alphabetical writing, preferred by the ancients because they could reveal meaning directly to the intuition of an intellectual. By the seventeenth century, the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) brought hieroglyphic studies of the Renaissance tradition to a climax with an all-encompassing “decipherment” of the hieroglyphs, which were presented as a font of the most esoteric theological and scientific knowledge. In the nineteenth-century, the hieroglyphic romanticism in Freemasonry was undeterred by Champollion’s legitimate decipherment in 1822 as the subject of Egypt continued to flourish the through re-editions of Abbé Terrasson’s novel Sethos (1731), which tells the story of an Egyptian Prince initiated into the mysteries of Isis. For the next two hundred years, overt Egyptian décor was used to great effect in Masonic Lodges and in the buildings designed by freemasons. Masonic artists and inventors of Masonic iconography sought devices in the architecture and detail of Egypt, linking them with the ideas of the Temple of Solomon to produce a curious syncretism not easily explained under the architectural category of Beaux-Arts Neoclassicism.
Above all, we must endeavour to treat our architecture as a whole, to handle our ornament not as a thing deducted at will, but to place it only where it is really necessary for giving the fullest meaning to the motives of our designs (Legislative Building designer Henry Boddington, Manitoba’s Architects Association in 1918).
Ascending the stairs of the Grand Staircase Hall, one enters into the spacious domed rotunda, the center of which is occupied by an Italian marble balustrade surrounding a circular opening that reveals a black eight-pointed star superimposed on the marble floor of the lower level. The lower chamber, called the “Pool of the Black Star,” is purportedly modeled after sacrifice altars in ancient Egypt where the altar was perceived as the symbolic microcosm of the centre of the universe. This association was later elaborated in Renaissance architectural theory in which the altar began to be situated in the center of the church as a geometric demonstration that god was one and absolute (unico e assoluto). According to Alberti, all geometries used in church design must be derived from and constructed from the circle, because the circle is the preferred form in nature as a manifestation of God, in the aspiration to absolute perfection. Though typically rectangular, many sanctuaries in the classical world also occurred in a circular plan, some of which bear a remarkable resemblance to the plan of the Pool of the Black Star, such as the sanctuary of Apollo at Didyma (c. 300 B.C.E.), which is decorated with bukrania, a Gorgon head, and housed an oracular altar measuring thirteen feet, the same size of both the balustrade and the black border of the eight-pointed star in the Manitoba Legislative Building.
The most unique feature about the Pool of the Black Star is its unusual auditory qualities, in which sounds from all over the building are caught, distorted, and magnified within the space occupied by the Black Star. Its acoustical resonance is a striking example of Legislature’s incorporation of the divine proportion, for if you divide the height to the eye of the dome (87 feet) by the Pool’s diameter (54 feet) it produces a number that is almost exactly equivalent to the golden mean ratio (1.6111…). Robert Lawlor claims that a similar form of acoustic resonance was also devised in ancient Egyptian temples which produced some of the most harmonious intervals found in music: the octaves, fifths, fourths, thirds and sixths. A similar claim is made by Anne Bulckens in her brilliant dissertation on the proportional system of the Parthenon (c. 447-438 B.C.E.), where the author demonstrates how all of the building’s dimensions can be related to the musical scale of Pythagoras.
In Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, Rudolf Wittkower shows how Pythagorean ratios of numerical harmony (eurhythmia) were also used in the Italian Renaissance, the most notable example being Alberti’s Santa Maria Novella in Florence (1470) which was inspired by the intention to implement the laws of Nature to the perfect architecture. In De Harmonia Mundi (1525), the Kabbalist friar, Francesco Giorgi proclaims that by the numbers and proportions of Pythagoras “the fabric of the soul and the whole world was arranged and perfected.” Giorgi went on to employ this idea for his plan of San Francesco della Vigna in Venice (1534), which as Wittkower has shown, is a practical application of the harmonies of macrocosm and microcosm. Understood in this way, the design of the church can be interpreted as the physical enactment of Divine will, and its sacred geometry conceived as a veritable blueprint for the mind of God.
Similar views were also espoused in Freemasonry which envisioned geometry as a secret science which was handed down first to the gods and ultimately to Hiram Abif, the builder of Solomon’s Temple. By conceiving geometry as a way of having direct access to order of the Universe, freemasons were able to conceive a utopian ideal of society based on the same principles by which master-builders constructed the temples of antiquity. For the Masonic architects of the eighteenth-century, geometry garnered a transcendental meaning:
…geometrical bodies were considered to be the most appropriate vehicle for reconciling man and his institutions with the external Nature. This geometry was not a method or operation. The figures were used because they were believed to be the fundamental constitutive and visible elements of Nature.
Geometry also served as a crucial element in Simon’s architectural training at the École des Beaux-Arts which instilled Vitruvius’ principles of symmetry, who advocated the construction of temples in accordance with proportions derived from the human body. These proportions not only included the Golden Section, but also an extrapolation of circles and squares originating from an upright human figure standing with arms and legs extended, the so-called ‘Vitruvian Man.’ Buildings that followed the harmonic proportions of Vitruvius could be conceived of as a conduit of Nature’s creature power, which drew upon divine harmonies and imparted them to human beings. The architectural program of the Manitoba Legislative Building might be conceived in the same manner, as its unique geometry is encoding it with powerful images intended to symbolically guide, direct, and shape the lives of its visitors. Such reading also provides insight to Simon’s esoteric pronouncement that “the effect of the building would in the course of time make the people around it, more perceptive, more intelligent, better balanced and altogether more civilized beings.”
Masonic Initiation and Imitatio Christi
On the main level of the Rotunda, Brangwyn’s large mural above the entrance to the Legislative Chamber depicts Canada’s efforts in the First World War, as well as presenting a veiled illustration of the passion of Christ. Abstract and often hidden portrayals of Christ were the hallmark of Brangwyn’s religious commissions which included illustrations in Chesterton’s commentary The Way of the Cross, as well as murals for Christ’s Church, London, and St. Aidans Church, Leeds. The presence of Christ is also exemplied in the Rotunda’s explicit repetition of the number thirteen. One of the most striking examples of this is found in the tripod Pompeian lamps surrounding the room’s perimeter which feature twelve small lights encircling a thirteenth larger light in the center; an allusion which immediately recalls the story of Jesus and his twelve apostles at the Last Supper.
Yet Christ’s depiction in the Rotunda is still only one layer of meaning in this highly symbolic and multi-faceted room. Another reading can be rendered from the hidden Masonic symbolism which is also present. Contrary to the common belief that Freemasonry is anti-Christian, much of the philosophy and symbolism of Freemasonry is in fact indebted to Christian ideals as well as to allegorical references in the Gospels which refer to masonry and building with stone. The combining of Masonry and Christianity is also reflected in Anderson’s Constitutions where Jesus is referred to as the “Grand Master of the Christian Church.” In the Third Degree Ritual, there is a dramatic presentation where the candidate enacts a death and resurrection ceremony. When the Master Mason is raised from the “dead” he “is no longer an ordinary man, but is now Lord of himself; the true Master-Mason….”
As early as the seventeenth century, masons are introduced to the Christian character of their order and maintain that a mason’s duty is to be faithful to God and his Holy Church. Later Masonic exposures go further by showing an interest of masons in identifying with the person of Christ. For instance, the Graham manuscript (1726), ‘dealing with the clothing and posture of the candidate on taking his oath, explains them by reference to the double nature of Christ, implying that by faithfully imitating his Master, the Christian may become a participant in his divinity.’ This Christ-centred spirituality descended from the medieval tradition reappears in Samuel Pritchard’s Masonry Dissected (1730), in which the “Grand Architect of the Universe” is explicitly identified with “He that was taken up to the top of the pinnacle of the Holy Temple.” Moreover, in the section “Questions concerning the Temple,” in the Dumfries no. 4 Manuscript (1710), Solomon’s Temple and furniture are interpreted in reference to Christ and to diverse attributes of Christ.
Returning to the central figure in the Brangwyn mural, we see that its imagery resembles the Entered Apprentice Rite of Freemasonry in which the initiate is brought into the center of the temple with his chest exposed and upon the arm of the Senior Warden. As part of the ritual drama the candidate participates in the following esoteric dialogue:
Worshipful Master: “What are the ornaments of the temple?”
Candidate: “The mosaic pavement, the indented tessel and the blazing star in the center”.
Although couched in Masonic terminology, these features are all present in the Rotunda and the Pool of the Black Star visible from its center. The mosaic pavement is simply an inlay pattern of small black squares or diamonds decorating the floor of a lodge, an the indented tessel is an ornamented border which surrounds the mosaic pavement, and the blazing star is, of course, the radiant star depicted on floor cloths of the First Degree Rite.
The visual representation of rituals surrounding Freemasonry have produced countless intriguing art works during the past two hundred years, many of which incorporate symbols and emblems related to architecture. For instance, the Mason’s emblematic floor cloth, or tracing board is among the paraphernalia of Freemasonry that explicitly portrays symbols borrowed from architecture’s operative roots. In his detailed study of Masonic architecture, Vidler speculates that the fundamental idea of the floor cloth is for the purpose of consecrating the sacred space of the assembly, and the act of drawing the lodge is meant to recall similar foundation rituals as those found in actually building architecture. As a Masonic tableau, the floor cloth is an example of an emblematic representative of the Temple which frames an allegorical ritual. For Vidler, the early floor cloths used in French Freemasonry during the mid eighteenth century are allegorical of:
…the first Temple of Solomon and its attributes, they were evidently laid out to describe a route from the point of entry into the lodge to the point of reception - the route of initiation. The drawings were differentiated according to the ordered stages of the initiation process, and to the three grades of initiation of Apprentice, Companion, and Master (emphasis added).
Ritualistic devices derived from Masonic regalia were necessary tools in order to establish an allegorical connection between Freemasonry and the ideal of Solomon’s Temple. This development in French Freemasonry during the mid eighteenth century in consecrating the ritual space by means of the floor cloth occurs at the same time that Masonic architects began to significantly influence the theories of design at the École des Beaux-Arts. This is a key feature for understanding the Masonic complexity of the Legislative Building’s design, which replaces the emblematic Temple depicted on Masonic tracing boards with the physical construction of the Temple using the traditional tools of the mason’s craft: brick, mortar, and marble. Passing from the floor cloth to the actual design of real buildings marks a major transformation in the institution of Freemasonry which occurred during the late eighteenth century and reaches its apogee in the Masonic parlante of the Manitoba Legislature.
In this architectural re-enactment of talismanic magic and allegorical Masonic ritual, the lines of distinction between visitor and participant blur and culminate in the entry to the most sacred part of the Temple: the Holy of Holies. To recapitulate, our initiate has thus far been sufficiently cleansed of evil in the forecourt (Grand Staircase Hall) of the Temple. He then participates in a Masonic initiation where he is introduced to the sacred ornaments of the Temple and instructed to imitate Christ who sacrifices himself in order to be born anew. The initiate’s rebirth now takes the form of the High Priest who alone has direct access to God and who alone can enter the sanctum sanctorum. It is here that he adorns the robes of wisdom.
Priestly Ordination in the Holy of Holies
It is recommended to Masons to study, with constancy and without becoming discouraged, everything that has to do with Solomon’s Temple, its proportions and its different parts, and the numbers that are pertinent…none of these things were fixed upon without purpose; they all tend essentially to recount the history of mankind, and to demonstrate a certain relationship with the Temple and the Universe (Willermoz, Instructions Secrètes aux Grands Profes) .
For generations, Freemasons were taught that the Order had been established among the workmen who built Solomon’s Temple, the creation of which became the central leitmotif of all Masonic fellowships, as its most important ceremony, the ritual of the “Blue Lodge,” is conceived around the story of its construction. The reconstruction of the Solomonic Temple in Freemasonic thought represented both the intention to imitate the rules of divine architecture and to apply the natural laws of proportion as part of the search for an individual and common purification. The relation of the Temple to the idea of society was well understood by Freemasons, as is expressed Willermoz’s decree:
Fundamentally, Freemasonry has no other aim than the knowledge of man and of nature; being founded on the Temple of Solomon [which]…has existed for itself in the universe solely to be the universal type of man in general in his past, present, and future states, and figurative emblematic picture of his own history.
Located directly east of the Rotunda is the Lieutenant-Governor’s Reception Suite, a walnut paneled room used to receive royalty and foreign dignitaries on state occasions. Ornamented with hand-carved designs, fluted columns, a French gilt chandelier, and two reflecting mirrors, the room’s internal floor plan equals the measurements of the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple. The premier journal of Masonic research, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, published a study on the value of the systems of measurement adopted at Solomon’s Temple and determined the cubit to be 14.4 inches, coined the “Masonic Cubit.” When this unit of measurement is applied to the floor plan of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Reception Room (24 feet square), it turns out to be a replica of the cubit dimensions of the Temple’s most sacred precinct (20 cubits square,   see 1 Kings 6:15).
The Holy of Holies was a sacred chamber in Solomon’s Temple which housed the bible’s most holy relic, the Ark of the Covenant. Every freemason who has undergone the Third Degree Rite is well informed of the function and religious significance of the Holy of Holies. As the most consecrated of the three parts of the Temple, the Holy of Holies is symbolic of a Master’s Lodge, in which are performed the most sacred rites of initiation in Ancient Craft Masonry. This tradition is claimed to derive from the second millennium B.C.E. cult and temple practices in ancient Egypt.
Separated from the rest of the Temple by a woven blue veil, the Holy of Holies was a windowless enclosure set apart from all intrusion, as it was believed that the presence of the Lord was too powerful for direct contact. Those who have taken a tour of the legislature will immediately note some of these correspondences to the Lieutenant-Governor’s Suite, which is similarly veiled with an ornately designed blue curtain and almost never occupied. Similarly, no one was permitted to access the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple, save for the High Priest on the annual observance, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As the highest appointed representative of Her Magesty in the province of Manitoba, the Lieutenant-Governor is strangely synonymous with this earthly representative of God.
This correspondence is amplified when one compares the religious function and devotional duties of the sacred chamber’s only attendant, the High Priest, and the municipal and constitutional responsibilities of the Lieutenant-Governor, who takes precedence over everyone in the province except for the Sovereign. The Lieutenant Governor is the Queen’s highest provincial representative symbolizing both the apex and the unifying link in the constitutional and political structure of the province. It is through the Lieutenant-Governor, as the personification of the Crown, that all legislation receives ‘Royal Assent,’ a concept which is synonymous with the ‘divine assent’ officiated by the High-Priest in the Jewish temple. This association is further compounded when we consider that the War Chest situated directly above the Reception Suite on the exterior east entrance is a representational analogue of Holy of Holies’ most sacred relic, the Ark of the Covenant.
The Ark of the Covenant was both the earthy manifestation of God and a powerful talisman carried into battle as a divine weapon. Dating from the time of Moses, the Ark was a portable shrine inscribed by the finger of God measuring two and a half cubits in length, one and a half cubits in breadth and in height (3.9” in length and 2.3” wide and in depth). The Ark served as a throne for the invisible God, an altar for the sacrificial cult, and a repository for the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. It was constructed of setim wood overlaid with the gold, and decorated by two winged cherubim, feared creatures of antiquity who according to Exodus (25:19) acted as courtiers of the “Majesty of God.” From analogy with ancient Near Eastern religious art, it is supposed that cherubim were kneeling or standing winged genie conscripted as guardians of sacred treasures. These are not the adorable cherubim of Renaissance art, but as the book of Genesis attests (3:24), armed warriors who protected the “Tree of Life” in the Garden of Eden.
In Masonic legend, Hiram Abif, the chief architect of Solomon’s Temple is murdered by three ruffians who attempt to extract the ‘secret word’ of the Master Mason. His body is discovered by King Solomon who buries him under the Holy of Holies which then becomes his eternal resting place. In this abode Hiram becomes divinized as ‘Grand Master’ and is often identified with the Grand Architect of the Universe whose secrets he kept safe. In the Master Mason degree the candidate is symbolically raised from the dead and conferred with the ‘secret word’ by the Worshipful Master, and thus becomes identified with Hiram. Here we find a deeper symbolism of the sanctum sanctorum as more than just the resting place for the Ark of the Covenant but the ideal and true Temple of God.
After four years of research, I am convinced that Simon’s design of the Manitoba Legislature was not simply a house of parliament, but is an example of what I have labelled Masonic parlante, as its architectural program speaks in Masonic allegories which are intended to guide its visitors through initiation and rebirth. Thus contrary to Pérez-Gómez’s so-called rationalization of architecture, this building stands as a testament to the continuation of esoteric architecture beyond the clash of ancients and moderns in the eighteenth-century. In my assessment, the Manitoba Legislature is a eulogy in stone on esoteric philosophy, temple mysticism, Vitruvian and Pythagorean notions of harmony, and the architectural theories of Saint Maux, Le Camus, de Wailly, Lequeu, and Willermoz. Beneath the façade of its Neoclassical elegance lurks a symphony of masonic dictums and underlying order so intelligently masked it has escaped historians and visitors for over eighty years. Its complex Masonic symbolism serves as a meta-narrative behind the building’s seemingly eclectic design. The story it tells is one of initiation, where the visitor becomes the participant in an allegorical mystery which begins with purification and solar protection, instruction in the Entered Apprentice Rite and imitation of Christ, and concludes with being identified with Hiram Abif, the master-craftsman of the Temple of God.