Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic Folk Art

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“The grand object of Masonry is to promote the happiness of the human race.”
– George Washington – President of the United States


I had the opportunity last week to visit the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, New York. The Museum is currently hosting 190 masonic ritual props, furnishings, banners and aprons donated by Kendra and Allan Daniel. These pieces were made by self-taught artists, artisans, and manufactories from the late 1700’s through the early decades of the 20th century for secret societies that flourished in plain sight throughout America.

Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Executive Director of the art museum, commented: “We are thrilled to receive this outstanding gift from Kendra and Allan Daniel. The fraternal history is part of our shared American story. This exhibition highlights the creativity as well as the iconography of this under-explored and wonderful area of folk art.”

Freemasons, Odd Fellows, and other fraternal organizations rooted in fellowship comprise one of the largest social and benevolent movements in early American history. In 1900, virtually one in every five men belonged to a fraternal society. Such organizations continue to bring members together to share values, improve themselves and their communities, and help others, particularly those in need. Each order conveys messages and honors their collective brother- and sisterhoods through ceremonies, rituals, and moral teachings, which are rooted in symbolic systems that impart and reinforce core tenets among their constituents. On view in the exhibition are imposing architectural elements (carved columns, archways, and a dramatic painted scenic backdrop); ritual and ceremonial objects (tracing boards replete with symbols used as mnemonic devices, hand-carved staffs, banners); personal items (aprons, certificates, and medals); lodge furnishings (altars and three-dimensional symbolic props). All are imbued with an amalgam of time-honored hieroglyphs that members recognize and revere for their encoded meanings. These symbols, often exuberantly rendered with meticulous care in a variety of mediums, include: square and compasses, all-seeing eyes, hands, stars, arrows, skulls and crossbones, and many more. While each fraternal group has different regalia and ritual stories, they share the use of a symbolic language and employ the icons to teach similar virtues.

Freemasonry is the earliest fraternal order in America, introduced in the 1720s. Its ideals were closely allied with enlightenment thought, and many of America’s founding leaders— including George Washington—were Masons. The early national period witnessed the incorporation of Masonic symbols into virtually every aspect of everyday life, from ceramic wares to decorative arts to textiles. Odd Fellowship was officially instituted in Baltimore in 1819 and became one of the largest fraternities in the United States. Beginning in the 1820s a movement against Freemasonry gained traction and ultimately became a political party, but this backlash saw a decline under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who was himself a Mason. Following the Civil War there was once again a widespread drive for the comradeship and unity offered by fraternal societies.

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Heart in Hand

The group is well known for its heart in hand symbol, which was often used as finial on staffs carried during lodge room rituals.

The heart in hand incorporates values of candor, frankness, and sincerity, as well as the lesson that “whatever the hand finds to do, the heart should go forth in wisdom.” It features in the ritual teachings for the Second, or Love, Degree, and when mounted on a staff, was carried by the Conductor as he led initiates and visitors around the lodge. It was also used as the symbol of the Past Grand. Most regalia catalogs show this type of staff in the official gesture of an open hand, the fingers and thumb pointing up.

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Cherubim

Cherubim are angel-like creatures most usually associated with the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol that is central to rituals performed by Freemasons and Odd Fellows. They were placed on top of a replica of the Ark with their extended wing tips touching to form a protective canopy. This pair may have been separated from a larger object.

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A reference to the degree of the Royal master in Exodus 25:18-20

18 And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubim on the two ends thereof. 20 And the cherubim shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.


As brothers, may we together cultivate all those virtues that adorn humanity: as brothers, may we pass through the journey of life…

-Rev Aaron B Grosh, The Odd-Fellow’s Manual, 1853


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Joe

Editor in Chief at Disinfo.com
Started in alternative media in 2009 as the videographer for AboveTopSecret.com, became their Social Media director in 2012, created Next Level Bullshit on YouTube in 2015, and now Editor in Chief for Disinfo.com. Stand back, this is going to get good.
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