Monday, October 15, 2012

Masons, Jews, and Mosaic Pavements

If you have been to the colonial Jewish synagogues in Curaçao, Barbados, or Suriname, or the (Old or New) Jewish Cemeteries in Curaçao, you will begin no notice recognize an interesting pattern: black and white tiles arranged in checkerboard fashion surrounding entrances to buildings and around the base of gravestones.  This pattern can also be seen in the nineteenth-century Jewish houses in the Scharloo district of Curaçao. It is often referred to by the name "mosaic pavement." (Mosaic Pavement outside Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname at Left.)

Mosaic Pavement in the Newer Jewish Cemetery in Curaçao
If you are a freemason, the pattern will seem doubly familiar. Mosaic pavement was (and is) a staple of both Masonic architecture and ritual objects. Masonic carpets and later floorings employed the mosaic pavement motif. used the pavement in the center of their sanctuaries either in tile or on a rug, usually surrounded by a border and with the symbol of a blazing star at the center. Although Masons were not the only people to use this type of flooring during this era, mosaic pavement took on special resonance within Masonic rites and are usually noted in emblem charts (like the one below) and were often used in Masonic lodges during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Emblematic chart and Masonic history of F[ree] and A[ccepted] M[asons] / Ramsey, Millet, & Hudson Steam. Lith. Co. (Kansas City, Mo. : W.M. Devore, publisher, c1877). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-02426
Samuel Lee, Orbis miraculum
London, 1659
Masons--like early American Jews--were interested in mosaic pavements for a reason.  Neo-classical marble checkerboard floorings reflected a general interest in antiquity, but they were also explicitly associated with Solomon’s Temple throughout the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. While Amsterdam Rabbi Leon de Templo depicts the interior courtyard of the Temple Mount in his model as paved in uniform square tiles, other scholars of the Temple explicitly used the checkerboard motif for the Temple’s courtyard, such as Samuel Lee in the diagram to the left. By at least 1730, mosaic pavement design (often in the form of a floor cloth) was a mainstay of Masonic Temples because of the pavement’s Solomonic association. When early Masons met in coffee shops, they decorated the meeting spaces with Temple motifs.

Indeed, until the nineteenth century when lodges expanded their membership and more routinely acquired property, lodges used portable symbols, badges and signs to signal connections to Solomon’s Temple and set an appropriate mood for meetings. Other important Temple symbols used in masonic rites included the Ark of the Covenant and the pillars of Jachin and Boaz (the two pillars in the emblem chart above).  Even the apron worn by masons (such as George Washington below) has been read as related to ephod (apron) of the sacred garments of the Kohen Gadol, shown below on the left of the frontispiece of the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695.

George Washington in Masonic Regalia, including the Masonic Apron. "Washington as a freemason," ( c1867). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-04176

Seder Haggadah shel Pesah (Passover Haggadah) (Amsterdam, 1695). Library of Congress, Hebraic Collection.

To learn more about connections between Jews and Masons, see my earlier post on Masonic Jews and my chapter on  "The Secret Lives of Men" in Messianism, Secrecy, & Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life (2012).  In my book, I talk about some of the key differences between the Jewish and Masonic uses of mosaic pavement, and the reasons why freemasonry was popular among early American Jews.


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