Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward: Historical and Global Perspectives

Freemasonry and the Visual Arts from the Eighteenth Century Forward: Historical and Global Perspectives
by Reva Wolf and Alisa Luxenberg, Editors

Bloomsbury Publishing Inc., NY, NY, 2020
304 pp., illus.,16 col. & 106 b/w. Trade, $108.00; $25.16; ePDF & ePub
ISBN: 978-1-5013-3796-3; ISBN: 978-1-5013-3798-7; ISBN: 978-1-5013-3797-0.

Reviewed by
Robert Maddox-Harle
October 2020

This book is a wonderful, detailed scholarly work which explores the relationship between Freemasonry and the visual arts and vice versa. The visual arts are considered in the broadest sense from the grand architecture of the 1700s to the exquisite craftsmanship of utilitarian items such as silver work, teapots, and porcelain items. As the Introduction states, “Given Freemasonry’s focus on architecture and metaphor, and, by extension, symbols it is hardly surprising that from the outset the arts figured prominently in Freemasonry’s self-image, and that numerous artists were Masons. This centrality of arts to the history of Freemasonry, and, conversely, Freemasonry’s significance for the history of art from the 1720s forward, is the overarching subject of this book” (p 1).

The main thrust of the book’s exploration is certainly concerned with visual arts and crafts, but it also goes into previously unknown historical facts regarding the relationship between Freemasonry and society generally, and the churches specifically. Preconceived ideas and inadequate existing scholarship are exposed on many levels; it is hard enough doing detailed historical analysis of any subject but when the subject is shrouded in secrecy and its own deliberate “veils and allegories” the accurate connection between it and mainstream society is just that much harder.

The book is beautifully illustrated with numerous colour and black & white images that help reveal the way the visual arts, particularly architecture, were influenced by and in turn influenced Freemasonry. I must mention, as an aside, my concern with eBooks. I received this book to review in the e-version, partly because of the current Corona pandemic and difficulty of hard copy postage from the UK and USA. It is extremely difficult to read a 321-page book stuck in front of a large computer screen, and in the case of a lavishly illustrated book where the images are as important as the text, basically tedious (and horrible) on an eBook reader. I enjoyed the book very much but not the reading experience. For all those that champion the notion that the end of hard copy books is nigh perhaps consider this dilemma.

After the excellent Introduction, The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Light, written by the editors, there are 11 chapters, quite varied in scope, by scholars in their respective fields. These are followed by a Selected Bibliography and Excellent Index. I thought I knew a reasonable amount about Freemasonry (that which I was permitted to know) by my own father who is a Mason and was Grand Master of his lodge for several years. This book showed me how little I did know, especially about the origins and political spread of Freemasonry over Europe originally and then to America. The 1700s and The Enlightenment were a time of intellectual, political, and geographical ferment. Freemasonry played a large, previously unknown major part in this changing epoch. This is reflected throughout the chapters, I will list these with abbreviated titles just to give the prospective reader an idea of the vast scope of this book’s investigation.

1 – Freemasonry in Eighteenth-Century Portugal

2 – The Order of the Pug and Meissen Porcelain

3 – Goya and Freemasonry

4 – Freemasonry’s “Living Stones” ...Portraiture of John Singleton Copley

5 – The Visual Arts of Freemasonry as practiced .... by Paul Revere

6 – Building Codes for Masonic Viewers in Baron Taylor’s ... Voyages...

7 – Freemasonry and the Architecture of the Persian Revival

8 – Solomon’s Temple in America ... 1865-1930

9 – Freemasonry and the Art Worker’s Guild

10 – Picturing Black Freemasons from Emancipation to the 1990s

11 – Saint Jean Baptiste, Haitian Vodou, and the Masonic Imagery As can be seen this book covers a lot of ground, not exhaustive by any means but enough to fill huge lacunae in our knowledge, and further, to provide an indispensable resource for scholars and students wishing to conduct further research into Freemasonry’s powerful influence in our recent history.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite the eBook experience, and found a delight in drooling over the reproduction of original artworks and photographs (on the large screen) of this paradoxically simple, yet mysterious complex phenomenon of Freemasonry.