Although all Freemasons will be familiar with the Tracing Boards – painted or printed boards developed in the early years of Freemasonry which are used in Lodges to illustrate Masonic symbols during lectures – little has been published on them. Terry Haunch’s book, Tracing Boards: Their Development and their Designers, has been in print for over forty years but is primarily an historical treatise. The Tracing Boards are an essential part of the three Craft Degrees in the way they illustrate the allegories and symbols used. There is no publication which adequately explains the Tracing Boards, their use and the meaning of their symbolism, and this book fills that gap in the market. The first part of the book gives a history of the development and use of Tracing Boards; the book then concentrates on explaining the role of the Tracing Boards in the First, Second and Third Degrees, and the specific symbolism of the Board used for each. Detailed descriptions of the Boards are given, particularly those used in the three degrees by the Emulation Lodge of Improvement, known as the Harris Boards, which contain the elements of most of the Tracing Boards used in lodges throughout Britain. The book is A4-size and contains a wealth of full-colour plates showing the variety of historical and colourful Tracing Boards throughout the world.
In this wonderfully illustrated book Julian Rees explores the tracing boards of the three Craft degrees. He explains all the symbolism within each Board and the meaning that this symbolism conveys to Freemasons.
In doing so, Rees continually touches base with elements of the English Emulation Ritual and the three important Emulation lectures. Taking this route gives us the familiarity of a well-trodden path before we strike out into areas less familiar for there are, as Rees cogently explains, deep layers of meaning indeed within these artistically depicted symbols; through them, a profound vision seeks expression. Such rich imagery, explains Rees, ‘may be employed for focusing attention … as a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space and as an aid to meditation. ‘
But tracing boards did not just arise arbitrarily as some sort of early Victorian aide-rnemoire: they have a history. Their origins lie in the operative architect’s plans. But we travel further than we might expect: the plans symbolised in these speculative masons’ floor-cloth , which then developed into tracing boards, are those of the Great Architect! Now, that is worth pondering a moment.
Rees shows us more designs of tracing boards than we will have even imagined existed. He shows us designs from Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Hungary, Scandinavia and the United States. Some are very strange: for example, the tracing boards created by Lady Frieda Harris, an associate of the magician Aleister Crowley and designer of his ‘Thoth’ Tarot Cards. They are wild, lingering on the edge of chaos, hypnotic and talismanic; they could not be more different to the boards used in most English lodges. Rees explains too that with the destruction of masonic artefacts under Fascism and Communism there is a renaissance of design in central and eastern European Freemasonry.
Studying our tracing boards quickly makes us aware that the symbolism can be read on many levels but at its deepest it expresses the masonic journey and that dynamic link between earth and the heavens – symbolised by the image of Jacob’s Ladder which is depicted upon the tracing board of the First Degree, the first an initiate sees.
It is clear that Lodge mentors need to spend time working through the three tracing boards with new initiates. Julian Rees’ book is a good place to start.