Volume 20, Issue 3 | Autumn 2021

Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward edited by Reva Wolf and Alisa Luxenberg

Reviewed by Darius A. Spieth

Reva Wolf and Alisa Luxenberg, eds.,
Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward.
New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019.
304 pp.; 16 color and 106 b&w illus.; bibliography.
$135 (hardback)
ISBN: 9781501337963

Investigations of how Freemasonry overlaps with painting, sculpture, architecture, and the applied arts remain a rarity. One can think of such exhibition catalogs as Une fraternité dans l’histoire, les artistes et la Franc-Maçonnerie au XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, edited in 2006 by Claire Stouling and Frédérique Thomas-Maurin for the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie at Besançon, or O Isis und Osiris, Ägyptens Mysterien und die Freimaurerei, edited in 2017 by Florian Ebeling and Christian E. Loeben for the Museum August Kestner in Hanover.‍[1] Written in French and German, respectively, these well-documented, art historical publications, nevertheless, can only claim a limited audience. Their scope, too, was very topical: French art from the Old Regime through Revolution and the nineteenth century for the former, and the Egyptian inspiration of Freemasonry for the latter. The essays collected by Reva Wolf and Alisa Luxenberg in their volume Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward: Historical and Global Perspectives, published by Bloomsbury, hold the promise to provide the reader with a much larger overview of the subject.

There is no doubt that more studies on the topic of Freemasonry and the visual arts—especially in (but not limited to) the context of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—are needed. Freemasonry was a thoroughbred product of the Enlightenment, and much of the symbolism of the French Revolution, for instance, was identical with that of Freemasonry. Nevertheless, as Wolf and Luxenberg point out in their introduction, art historians have historically shunned the subject, possibly on account of its proximity to mysticism and the occult (Gombrich being one exception). Despite the claim for a global perspective, the emphasis of Freemasonry and the Visual Arts is on the English-speaking world and its periphery. The Mediterranean, France, and Belgium do not find a place commensurate with their importance in this global perspective. The geography in the United States is mostly limited to the East Coast and New England, with a touch of the Midwest, but the South (despite the rich Freemasonic material culture in, for example, Louisiana), is a blank spot, as is South America. But since comprehensiveness is clearly impossible to achieve, limitations are to be expected and accepted. An overarching theme of the volume is the interest in prints, the applied arts, and architecture, which is not surprising, because it is here that the material culture of Freemasonry manifests itself most pervasively.

Freemasonry and the Visual Arts is in many ways a treasure chest of a book. Of the eleven essays (plus introduction), perhaps the most intriguing ones are those by Cordula Bischoff on “The Order of the Pug in Meissen Porcelain,” Reva Wolf on “Goya and Freemasonry,” and Katherine Smith on “Saint Jean Baptiste, Haitian Vodou, and the Masonic Imaginary.” The artistic, cultural, and economic dimensions of porcelain have recently received renewed scholarly attention thanks to Suzanne Marchand’s magisterial study, Porcelain: A History from the Heart of Europe (Princeton University Press, 2020). Bischoff provides us with a fascinating addition to this story when she retraces the synergies between German eighteenth-century porcelain production—especially Meissen figure groups—and the Order of Pug, a para-Masonic order flourishing mostly in the 1740s, which was often considered to be a legend. Bischoff not only documents that this Geckenorden (fools’ order) was real, with a lot of members coming from the administrative elite of the center of porcelain production, located between Leipzig and Dresden, but also demonstrates how the Order of the Pug was particularly welcoming to female initiates.

Goya is an artist whose mysterious Romanticism still speaks strongly to contemporary audiences. Not surprisingly, any research into a Freemasonic aspect to his artistic inspiration holds a priori significant interest. Reva Wolf’s essay is mostly based on circumstantial evidence: the Masonic and Enlightenment circles which Goya frequented, as well as the symbolism of the drawings he embedded in his letters to friends and acquaintances. The essay is deeply researched, and the conclusions are intelligently presented. Goya’s work and his commitment to Enlightenment ideals make a lot more sense if we think of him as a Freemason. Nevertheless, the reader feels that somehow there is a “missing link,” a final document from a lodge, for instance, with Goya’s name on it—and one that can probably never be found. In this sense, Wolf’s study can be compared to Albert Boime’s essay about Jacques-Louis David’s involvement with Freemasonry (“David et la Franç-Maçonnerie”), published in 1993 in the papers of the Louvre colloquium, David contre David.‍[2]

One of the merits of Freemasonry and the Visual Arts is the diversity of the materials assembled, reflecting the fact that Freemasonry itself is far from monolithic, but an adaptable and polymorphous phenomenon. Katherine Smith’s essay on Haitian Vodou and Freemasonry is a case in point. That Vodou synthesized traditional African religion and rituals with elements derived from Catholicism does not require further elaboration, but the amalgamation with Freemasonic symbolism and practices is a much less known insight. The author does an excellent job not only at highlighting the shared material and visual culture of Vodou and Freemasonry in Haiti, but also at discussing implicit sociological problems. Whereas Vodou has only recently been recognized as an official religion in Haiti, it was for a long time frowned upon by the cultured elite of the country, unless it was outright persecuted. Freemasonry, by contrast, was a spiritual and cultural practice associated with the Europeanized elite. The longstanding cross-fertilization between the two, as described by Smith, is therefore as surprising as it is coherent and plausible.

A distinct emphasis of Wolf and Luxenberg’s book is the historical engagement with the visual arts and architecture in the United States. Two essays deal with art and Freemasonry in New England before and after the American Revolution. Nan Wolverton presents a well-documented case for how Paul Revere’s involvement with Freemasonry, his role in the American Revolution, and his professional activities as a silversmith and printmaker interweave. The study has the added advantage that Paul Revere’s Masonic affiliation is indisputable, and the author uses the opportunity to broaden the discussion to include porcelain with Masonic decorations imported from China or the architecture of the New State House of Massachusetts. David Bjelajac’s essay about John Singleton Copley’s portrait paintings functions somewhat as a companion to that of Wolverton. Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere from 1768, not surprisingly, is a central document of this discussion. Copley was not a Mason, however, and Bjelajac argues that his failure to join the brotherhood was a consequence of intersecting political and religious conditions in Boston, which would have made such a move inopportune. Bjelajac instead focuses on Copley’s social and family milieu, including his stepson Peter Pelham and his grandson Epes Sargent Jr., who were deeply involved with Masonry, and the “hidden presence of masonic symbolism” (96) in, for instance, the Paul Revere portrait. As a result, the final part of the essay, surprisingly, takes recourse to arguments located somewhere between formal analysis and connoisseurship-like speculations about hand gestures and the spherical, “world globe” connotations of silver tea pots.

Two more essays deal with the United States, albeit from the perspective of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: William D. Moore’s contribution about “Solomon’s Temple in America: Masonic Architecture, Biblical Imagery, and Popular Culture, 1865–1930,” and Cheryl Finley and Deborah Willis’s essay on “Picturing Black Freemasons from Emancipation to the 1990s.” Solomon’s Temple, built, according to the Old Testament, in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant, is a reference point of central importance in Freemasonry, as the legendary ancestor of all Masons, Hiram Abiff, the alleged architect of the temple, was murdered for his denial to divulge a secret password. During the second half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century, Solomon (and, by extension, Hiram Abiff) received renewed attention in the United States, as Masons financed and recreated their contemporary versions of Solomon’s Temple, reincarnated as monumental Masonic structures mostly on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Moore’s study of this phenomenon draws intriguing parallels to Romantic art popular in the nineteenth century, such as English painter John Martin’s panorama of Belshazzar’s Feast (1820). But Moore’s essay is primarily about the twentieth century and modern times. He shows us how Solomon became part of popular culture in the United States through Barnum circus posters, and how Tiffany Studios picked up the iconography in splendid stained-glass windows. The conclusion drawn from Harvey Wiley Corbett’s failed project to build a monumental Art Deco skyscraper recreation of Solomon’s Temple for Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exhibition in 1926 is particularly revealing: that Freemasonry, as an organization and social force in the United States, never recovered after the Great Depression and World War II in order to seek the limelight, as it had done during its “golden age” between 1865 and 1930.

The study of Freemasonry in the context of the history of photography remains a fascinating niche area of scholarship. Cheryl Finley and Deborah Willis’s contribution is thus innovative on two accounts. It casts new light on the role of photography in the material culture of Freemasonry and draws our attention to the African American contribution to photography. A product of the racial segregation of Freemasonry over long periods of its existence in the United States, Prince Hall Freemasonry has a distinct genesis going back to the late eighteenth century, in which photography plays a key documentary role. The authors unearthed an impressive number of lodge photographs, mostly from the 1920s, and analyze the role of the individuals depicted, along with the symbolic connotations of the compositional arrangement of the photographs. The study invites associations with the Harlem Renaissance, especially since many of the Masons depicted were musicians, actors, and persons engaged in creative pursuits. The venues here are mostly New York and the East Coast, with passing references to Cincinnati, St. Paul, and Helena, Montana. One blind spot is the South, which has its own traditions of Prince Hall Freemasonry, overlapping with Mardi Gras and carnival krewes in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Texas—equally documented through photographs and written archival sources—as some recent studies by Kirsten L. Campbell have shown.‍[3]

The Mediterranean world claims a relatively marginal place in Freemasonry and the Visual Arts. Besides the essay on Goya by Reva Wolf, David Martin López writes on the Marquis de Pombal’s role in eighteenth-century Portuguese architecture and city planning, and Alisa Luxenberg on the Masonic inspiration of the prints in Baron Taylor’s Voyage pittoresque et romantique dans l’ancienne France (1820–78). The protagonists of López’s study are the Portuguese politician, Enlightenment personality, and purported Freemason, Marquis de Pombal, and his protégé, the Hungarian architect, urban planner, and Freemason, Carlos Mardel. The venue is Lisbon before and after the devastating earthquake of 1755. López shows how this friendship and the mutual connection with the brotherhood potentially informed the architectural form of the rebuilding of the Baixa district, and pays particular attention to how Masonic symbolism, commercial interests, and Palladian aesthetic models informed Mardel’s choices. Even such details as the Masonic inspiration of stucco decorations in the Palace of Pombal do not escape his attention.

Cosmopolitanism and travel are deservedly some of the overriding themes of Wolf and Luxenberg’s volume. This observation is also born out in Luxenberg’s essay on Baron Taylor’s picturesque travel description of “old France,” conceived after the fall of Napoleon, and published in Restoration France around 1824. The publication predated Taylor’s rise through the French Masonic hierarchies between 1839 and 1840, but the complexity of his personality makes an even earlier acquaintance with Masonic ideas likely. Taylor was born to an English father and a Belgian mother; he is perhaps best remembered for bringing the obelisk of the Place de la Concorde to France, but he was also extensively involved, as a royal commissioner, with establishing the program for the Comédie française. Finally, he published travel descriptions, the most important of which was the Voyage pittoresque et romantique dans l’ancienne France, and its printed lithograph illustrations by such artists as Louis Atthalin, Jean-Baptiste Isabey, and Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard, featuring dark crypts, moonlit landscapes, and ruined medieval architecture. The imagery is quite typical of the medieval nostalgia that gripped France (and other parts of Europe) after the vandalism of the French Revolution, which had damaged a great many churches, cathedrals, and monasteries and led to a rising awareness of what would later be called historic preservation. The saccharine and Romantic nostalgia for a medieval past and its “forgotten” monuments informed for instance, the troubadour painters of the 1820s, and later on the genre historique of such fashionable artists as Paul Delaroche during the July Monarchy. As such, the prints of the Voyage pittoresque et romantique dans l’ancienne France are not art historically out of the ordinary, but Luxenberg convincingly identifies the Masonic element in this iconography, kindling a desire to know more about Baron Taylor and the work he inspired. Constant Mayeux’s monument erected in Taylor’s honor after his death provides an interesting coda to Luxenberg’s discussion, as it reveals the considerable cultural clout of the mastermind behind the Voyage.

The only essay dealing with Freemasonry in England is Martin Cherry’s “Freemasonry and the Art Workers’ Guild: The Arts Lodge No. 2751, 1899–1935,” which draws our attention to the fact that lodges were often organized by shared profession or interests across the membership base. Lodges composed of visual artists and architects, therefore, would naturally stand out as a subject of interest for art historians investigating Freemasonry. This is the case of Cherry’s London-based lodge of “art workers,” who were inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, and the role models of William Morris and John Ruskin. Unfortunately, this connection to a larger art historical framework is soon lost in the tedious details of the institutional genesis of the lodges and its members; the reader is drowned in lodge numbers and membership lists that are only of interest for those studying the minutiae of these lodges. The contribution is at its best when the extant Masonic jewels, which were crafted by these artist-members, are discussed, or when the author reveals war-time efforts to expel members with German-sounding names. All things considered, the subject did not live up to the introduction’s promise of a possible link between the Arts and Crafts movement and Freemasonry and gets lost in dry details of the inner lives of these lodges and their members.

Perhaps the most original subject of this volume is Talinn Grigor’s investigation into “Freemasonry and the Architecture of the Persian Revival, 1843–1933.” The somewhat enigmatic title conceals a study that is mostly concerned with Zoroastrian “fire temples” erected by Persian expatriates in India, and in their country of origin. Grigor’s essay is as much about the architecture itself, as it is about sociological and colonial/post-colonial contexts of these organizations and structures. We learn, for instance, that the Freemasons in the Parsi communities represented agents for social change and modernization, whereas in western countries, Freemasons were mostly agents of conservative thought. The fire temples illustrated from Bombay and elsewhere are fascinating structures, but the reader is often at a loss to determine whether these are truly Masonic structures or Zoroastrian temples; the author never succeeds in drawing the line between the two, which may indeed be impossible to establish. Another blind spot in this story is the relationship of Zoroastrianism, Freemasonry, and Islam, a subject which is hardly touched upon. No doubt, Grigor’s essay is a groundbreaking study on a subject possibly never broached before in this context, but unfortunately too much of the information and evidence remains nebulous. Even the author felt compelled to concede at one point that “like Iranian Freemasonry itself, these connections could fall apart at any moment” (170). Perhaps a more thorough editing of the essay would have helped to clarify certain points not familiar to the non-specialist reader.

All things considered, Freemasonry and the Visual Arts is a daring publication with many unexpected insights. Its cover illustration of an eye, an ear, and a “locked” mouth could pass for a Surrealist artwork by Max Ernst. In fact, it is a detail taken from an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Masonic snuffbox preserved at the Museum of Freemasonry in London. The “confusion” that the first impression of this artwork evokes in twenty-first-century viewers further supports the relevance of Freemasonry for art historical research. Masonic symbolism, and its allusions to mysteries, secrets, and the occult speak strongly to the modern and post-modern imagination. It is a timeless subject that continues to fascinate. Yet, Wolf and Luxenberg’s book, as valuable as it is, suffers from a general problem intrinsic to the proliferating literature of edited volumes, which is a lack of coherence. Freemasonry in and off itself, as many of the authors themselves affirm, is not a monolithic subject. The inherent diversity of Freemasonry makes for a weak common denominator holding together otherwise very divergent subjects. The reader senses that the content of the essays is defined (not surprisingly) more by the subjectivity of the authors’ vantage points or their areas of expertise than by the overarching theme. Wolf and Luxenberg’s volume is not a comprehensive history or a travail de synthèse of art and architecture in a freemasonic context. Such a work has still to be written, but some of the subjects covered in Freemasonry and the Visual Arts may hint at the form and the reference points that such a comprehensive (and hopefully single-authored) investigation could take.


[1] Une fraternité dans l’histoire, les artistes et la Franc-Maçonnerie au XVIIIe et XIXe siècle, eds. Claire Stouling and Frédérique Thomas-Maurin (Paris: Somogy, 2006); O Isis und Osiris, Ägyptens Mysterien und die Freimaurerei, eds. Florian Ebeling and Christian E. Loeben (Rahden: Leidorf, 2017).

[2] Albert Boime, “David et la Franç-Maçonnerie,” in David contre David: Actes du colloque organisé au Louvre par le service culturel du 6 au 10 décembre 1989, ed. Régis Michel, 2 vols. (Paris: La Documentation française, 1993), 1:259–91.

[3] Kirsten L. Campbell, “Hyear Come De Parade: The History of the Black Mardi Gras Tradition in Baton Rouge,” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 2020). A doctoral dissertation by the same author, expanding on the subject, is currently in preparation.