A review by Shawn Eyer of Tracing Boards of the Three Degrees in Craft Freemasonry Explained
which appeared in the Masonic review AHIMAN.
Every now and then a new book will appear that we know, almost instantly, will enjoy a place in the top ten list of books that we recommend to newly made Freemasons. Bro∴ Julian Rees, a wellknown English Masonic author, has produced such a work in this important new book on the tracing boards—a subject of great interest to all students of the meaning and development of the Craft's symbolism.
This is a volume long needed. For many years, the best way to study the tracing boards at home has been to obtain the rightly beloved Masonic art books of W. Kirk MacNulty—Freemasonry: A Journey Through Ritual and Symbol (1991) and Freemasonry: Symbols, Secrets, Significance (2006) — and read them alongside Terence Haunch's learned historical survey, Tracing Boards: Their Development and Their Designers (2004). Together, these books provide high quality examples of the boards, along with historical and interpretive commentary. But Haunch's book is difficult to locate in the United States, so while American Masons often enjoy seeing the occasional reproduction of tracing boards in various media, too commonly we have failed to actually study them in depth. This is a shame, because, with few exceptions, the images on the tracing boards apply just as readily to our contemplations as to the reflections of our brethren in England and in other lands where such boards are commonIy used.
There is a popular misconception that the tracing boards are mere devices meant to assist us in the ritualistic performance of the memorized lectures. While these images may be very helpful as mnemonic tools, Rees traces the real origins of the tracing boards to some of the most essential psychological needs of man, most importantly the urge to create "in a form comprehensible to his fellow men images that would assist him in devotion to the deity". Thus, within Freemasonry, the boards serve to help us better convey the inner meaning of the ritual.
In further discussion of this matter, Rees demonstrates that the boards hearken back to a time when a much greater level of instruction was imparted to the candidate. He includes, for example, the tracing board-style frontispiece of a 1766 exposure, along with its original accompanying text, which delineates each symbol in the engraving, and then concludes: "The Uses of the above Materials are fully defined in the Course of the Work, both spiritually and temporally." This is good evidence that lectures and orations on symbolism were frequently given in lodges before Preston's system of lectures were developed. It also indicated that—in some cases—they were meant to explain the tracing boards.
After reminding us that there exist eighteenth century records that describe initiates studying drawings made directly on the lodge room floor (which were, due to their esoteric nature, washed away immediately after the temple was closed), Rees reveals his view of the important role the tracing boards can play:
Freemasonry is about rendering in symbol and allegory that which words alone cannot render, And a visual image gives us a way of using our own insight to decode the message. The tracing boards are there to do just that—from their original function of laying out the plan of the building, they have developed into a means for us to lay out the message, and then to profit by it.
In order that the reader might so profit, the book features good reproductions (mostly in color) of eighty-one tracing boards, in addition to some supporting illustrations. Several of the boards are reproduced at a large size, nearly filling the page. The majority are given in smaller dimensions, but the halftone quality is generalIy clear enough for us to study the details. Some of the design decisions seem pragmatic. For example, Josiah Bowring's extremely influential and beautiful E∴A∴, F∴C∴ and M∴M∴ tracing boards are given only in small size, but this is no doubt owing to the fact that they are reproduced so beautifully in W. Kirk MacNulty’s books. This has allowed room for a significant number of boards that have never appeared in print before, or never before in color. Their presence here is very welcome.
The excellent artistic value of the book is complimented by Julian Rees' insightful commentary upon the three Craft tracing boards. These essays are concise but sophisticated, and possess the kind of flexibility and depth of thought that is clearly the result of many decades' exploration of the Craft rituals.
A fine example of this fluid interpretation is found in his discussion of the second degree. In the English Emulation Rite, the Fellow Craft is taken to the Southeast corner of the Lodge, and told that he is "now permitted to extend [his] researches into the hidden mysteries of nature and science." Many have expressed confusion about what this might mean, but Rees has an engaging way to address the matter:
You may ask, since when were 'nature’ and 'science’ mysteries? And why should they be hidden? If we shift our perspective, and think of nature as our own nature, and think of science as the knowing of that nature, and consider then that self-knowledge follows from our uncovering, discovering our own nature which may be hidden under layers of impediments which modern life lays on it, then we gain enlightenment enabling a richer view.
The author's interest in philosophical matters is obvious, and his essays occasionally refer to Hermetic and mystical topics. He demonstrates how several of the symbols in the Apprentice board denote the "interconnection of celestial and terrestial," with Jacob's Ladder "being an emblem of the possibility of man’s ascent to celestial realms." In discussing the lessons of the third degree, Rees again emphasizes that a Mason’s journey is an interior one:
Having learned to know ourselves, discovered our own vital and immortal principle, namely the spark of divinity within ourselves, we can indeed ensure the triumph of good over evil.
After his main section using the "standard" boards of the Emulation working to illuminate the Craft degrees, Rees includes two more sections: one on history and variations of the boards, and one on the use of tracing boards outside the United Grand Lodge of England, These chapters are filled with very interesting and artistic variations upon the more familiar tracing board themes, including the work of the Belgian painter and composer, Ferenc Sebök.
Tracing Boards of the Three Degrees in Craft Freemasonry Explained is a book that many in the Craft have looked forward to. By bringing to life the rich iconography of this critical part of our material culture, Julian Rees has enabled a new generation of Freemasons to gain insight into their traditions and the development thereof. Thanks to Rees, American Masons need no longer admire the tracing boards from afar.
“THE TRACING BOARD is an emblem of the book of nature
with all the designs of Infinite Wisdom,
drawn and delineated by the Supreme Architect of the
Universe which, though he who runs may read,
The Mason who contemplates
will dare to imitate and pursue the plans
which will present and lead to eternal happiness.”
William Preston 1772
[Since this review was written the second edition has been published containing a chapter devoted to lantern slides kindly made available by the Grand Lodge of Iowa]