Ancient builders long ago mastered the “integrated expression of an inner state of harmony” in their buildings. The mathematically proportioned forms and handcrafted detailing of temples and government buildings over the centuries grew rich with interrelated meanings and traditions. Each new generation, seeing the world slightly differently added further layers of meaning to the symbols.
The tradition of masons and carpenters passing down knowledge—regarding nature, mathematical principles, and symbolism—through an apprenticeship system, propelled both the art and the craft of building to new heights of beauty and technical achievement.
The townspeople, each at their own level of understanding, were active participants in the ritual symbolism built into local architecture. While representative imagery belonged primarily to sacred buildings, some of the symbolic traditions carried over into the design and construction of village dwellings, acting for the individual as local microcosms of the sacred center of the village, and ultimately the heavens above.
Symbols, patterns and characters, recognized by medieval peasants and village commoners—not from formal teachings, but through intuition and relating to daily experience—were understood intellectually and philosophically by the educated classes. They read an in the symbols an architectural expression of laws of nature, and an implied moral order.
Sages, philosophers and initiates—select individuals inducted into the mystery sciences and taught the inner meanings of symbols and patterns—had the fullest knowledge of the universal systems employed in the craftmans work; and understood the use of natural forms as symbols for prime archetypes, or emblems of divine or driving forces.
They also understood the relationships between the symbols, patterns and their orientations as expressions of ideas parallel to, and no less accurate than those of modern science and mathematics.
For the ancient Egyptians, “the words ‘sacred’ and ‘secret’ possessed the same meaning. All knowledge was anciently concealed in what was referred to as the mysteries; letters, numbers, astrology, astronomy, alchemy, the parent of chemistry, these, and all other sciences were hidden from the common people.” [i]
Sages and priests gained scientific wisdom through their initiation into the mysteries. By use of this knowledge in solving problems of daily life they maintained an aura of demigods, and their power over the unsophisticated masses. In the eyes of the medieval commoners the wise magi had become magicians.
Knowledge of the secret arts was obtained from the East, and according to George Fort, directly from Byzantium. “It has been argued with much force and apparent truth, that the building art was, in times of remotest antiquity, regarded as sacred, and existed under special concession and care of the native priesthood where it was practised…” [ii]
In order to expand and enhance the dramatic effect of the mystery knowledge into great architectural edifices, priests, bishops and magistrates of Greece, Rome and France enlisted the most talented builders of their time—master stonemasons, carpenters, artisans known for their ability to create beautiful images, and the finest craftsmen skilled in working with stone, wood, metal or glass.
To properly reveal the code, or suggest the desired laws and principles in the building details, elements and structural forms, the master masons and carpenters required a fuller knowledge of the sacred wisdom of the sages.
To understand and express the essence of nature—they needed a broader and deeper understanding of spiritual symbolism, the religious emblems describing forces of nature, and the governing laws portrayed in patterns, layers and repetitions. This deeper wisdom could only be acquired through initiation into the mysteries.
[i] Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Revising Committee, The Woman’s Bible, 1898
[ii] George F. Fort, The Early History and Antiquities of Freemasonry. Philadelphia, U.S.A., 1875, p. 363.