My own initiation into Freemasonry was one of the highlights of my adult life. The marvelous rituals and the delightful imparting of “secrets” are sublime, but they are threaded with a hint of anachronistic camp. In the moment you give over to it completely. This is the true power of theater and pomp. Much of Freemasonry’s ability to elicit this good-natured suspension of disbelief is its varied use of symbol and parable, most of which is part of the very architecture and decor of the lodge.
Like Freemasonry itself, the art and other artifacts that are both standard and unique to each lodge waver between high and low, masterful and kitsch. As Above, So Below by Lynne Adele and Bruce Lee Webb, and lovingly presented by University of Texas Press, collects all the various kinds of fraternal arts, including banners, aprons, paintings, and even magic lantern slides and quilts. The book is not limited to Freemasonry, and offers examples from Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias, among others.
What is made most apparent is how deeply these societies are entangled with folk elements. Images of death and resurrection abound, as do beehives, goats, and of course the all-seeing eye. There is esoteric lore and mystery layered with mystery. As David Byrne says in his foreword to the book, “The obscuring layers are the content.” And yet, the humble often outsider nature of the examples in this book reveal the most startling truth about Freemasons and others secret societies: these are the homegrown fellowships of our ancestors, people looking for fraternity and the warmth of a lodge, often during our country’s most difficult times. These were simple men and women, not the secret rulers of the universe.
As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society
As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930
by Lynne Adele and Bruce Lee Webb
University of Texas Press
2015, 288 pages, 9 x 11 x 1.2 inches