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Temple of Mystery, Temple of Memory: The Masonic Tracing Board of Rideau Lodge No. 25

by Forrest Pass

ON THE EVENING OF APRIL 14, 1819, George Landon Burritt, a twenty-one-year-old farmer, was initiated into the first degree of Freemasonry. The space for the ceremony was modest: Rideau Lodge no. 25 met in a rough tavern owned by a member, Richard Olmstead, at Burritts Rapids in eastern Upper Canada’s Rideau Valley. The furnishings were equally unassuming. Three simple homemade tallow candles in wooden candlesticks served as the ceremonial eastern, western, and southern lights. The Book of Sacred Law on the lodge altar was an inexpensive Sunday school Bible. And the new initiate was among old friends. Several of George Burritt’s fictive brothers-to-be were real kin, including his father Daniel Burritt, the lodge’s Worshipful Master and the rural community’s namesake.

Yet for all the cozy familiarity, Burritt would have found his initiation exotic and exciting. Enhancing the experience was Rideau Lodge’s latest purchase, a large oil-on-canvas tracing board: a ritual painting used to instruct new Masons and remind old ones of the mysteries of their order. The legendary temple the tracing board depicted was far removed in space and time from Burritts Rapids. However, through its use in rituals such as Burritt’s initiation, the tracing board transformed the tavern room into a sacred space, bringing to life Old Testament stories and the hermetic lore of the Renaissance.

Masonic tracing board
Tracing Board of Rideau Lodge No. 25, 1818. Oil on canvas, 211 x 110 cm. Library and Archives Canada

We owe the board’s survival to George Burritt. Thirty years after his initiation, in his capacity as Rideau Lodge’s last Worshipful Master, Burritt approved the loan of the board and other Masonic regalia to a new lodge in nearby Kemptville. From the Kemptville lodge, it made its way to the Public Archives of Canada in 1972, and it remains in the collection at Library and Archives Canada, the Public Archives’ successor. Probably the oldest artifact of its kind in Canada, the Rideau Lodge tracing board sheds light on the practices of early Canadian Freemasons, which blurred the distinction between sacred and secular.

Rideau Lodge No. 25 acquired its tracing board less than a year before George Burritt’s initiation. The lodge accounts record the purchase, on February 16, 1818, of “a Carpit [sic].” In a Masonic context, the terms “carpet,” “tracing board,” and “chart” have different meanings today, but they were synonyms in the early nineteenth century. All represented the drawings that master stonemasons once traced on the dusty ground of work sites to instruct their apprentices and journeymen.

Etching of the temple of Solomon
Jan Luyken, Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, 1682. Etching on paper, 14 × 18 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

As Freemasonry evolved from trade to tradition, the carpet or tracing board came to illustrate esoteric knowledge rather than concrete instruction. Rideau Lodge’s board is an imaginative interpretation of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Since the early modern period, artists often depicted the Temple as a three-storey structure, following the floor plan described in 1 Kings 6:6. Central to Masonic mythology since at least the early eighteenth century, the construction of the Temple replaced an earlier ritual focus on the building of the Tower of Babel. In Masonic lore, the three floors of the Temple signify the three degrees of Masonry: the Entered Apprentice, the Fellowcraft, and the Master Mason. Although not associated with a degree, the crypt beneath also features important Masonic imagery.

Engraving of a Masonic temple.
Thomas Kensett, The Master’s Carpet Compleat, 1812

The immediate inspiration for the Rideau Lodge board was a print entitled The Master’s Carpet Compleat, engraved and published by Connecticut printer and Freemason Thomas Kensett in 1812. Widely distributed throughout the northeastern United States, Kensett’s work inspired many tracing boards used in American lodges, which suggests that the Rideau Lodge board likely originated in the United States.

Like other Kensett-inspired tracing boards, the Rideau Lodge board is a reinterpretation of Kensett’s illustration rather than a copy. The unknown artist, for example, placed the pillars called Jachin and Boaz on the second storey of the temple rather than flanking it, as in Kensett’s image. He also added two figures in eighteenth-century garb and Masonic aprons who hoist blocks of stone with a block and tackle.

A man with block and tackle.
Detail from the Tracing Board of Rideau Lodge No. 25.

This may show a lewis, a tool for raising stones. Intriguingly, the lewis was not part of standard American Masonic imagery until well into the twentieth century, but in the English Masonic tradition it came to represent a new initiate whose father was also a Mason. Its inclusion on the Rideau Lodge board might be an artist’s personal trademark or an acknowledgment that the board was intended for a Canadian lodge nominally under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of England. In any case, it is appropriate for a lodge in which so many members were biological as well as metaphorical kin.

An impressive and esoteric artwork, the Rideau Lodge tracing board surely surprised and awed lodge members, especially new initiates. As an up-to-date representation of Masonic lore, the tracing board signified the lodge’s legitimacy and added solemnity to its proceedings. This alone justified its significant cost: £15 ($60), which was about half the savings of a lodge that purchased other necessities locally and cheaply. However, it was not merely a decorative depiction of a sacred space. The tracing board structured the Mason’s experience of lodge membership intellectually and physically in ways that went beyond its astonishing size and complexity.

The tracing board’s use links it to an early Masonic fascination with the “art of memory,” a practice that uses assemblages of mental images—figures, objects, places—as mnemonic devices. Renaissance theorists of memory proposed elaborate schema for organizing and recalling large quantities of information. Sometimes these took the form of buildings, real or imagined, including temples, theatres, and palaces. Recently, the popular television series Sherlock revived interest in this mnemonic practice: Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, occasionally retreats into his “mind palace,” an imaginary building from which he recalls information stored in particular “rooms.”

The tracing board’s Temple was the new Masonic initiate’s mind palace. George Burritt would have studied the tracing board closely, and as he explored the Temple’s floors, he would have recognized objects and images that he had encountered in the lectures and charges of his initiation. Some of these were readily comprehensible to Masons and non-Masons alike; the beehive on the third floor, for example, represented the value of honest labour. Others were more exclusive. A painting on the Temple’s second storey of a river and a wheat field refers to an event recorded in Judges 12:5-6 that underlines the importance of distinguishing true brothers from impostors. The story is about two warring tribes, the Gileadites and Ephraimites. The Gileadites won a battle and set up a blockade to prevent Ephraimite soldiers from fleeing across the Jordan River to safety. The Gileadites used the Ephraimites’ peculiar pronunciation of “shibboleth,” a Hebrew word that can mean either grain or a flooding river, to identify them as the enemy. Committing such allusions to memory and exploring their significance underpinned the aspiring Mason’s progress through the three degrees.

A beehive and painting of a river.
Details from the Tracing Board of Rideau Lodge No. 25, 1818

George Burritt’s exploration was physical as well as mental and metaphorical. Modest as the space might have been, the lodge room at Olmstead’s tavern in Burritts Rapids mirrored the layout of the first floor of the Temple as depicted on the tracing board, with the officers’ seats, candles, the lodge altar and bible, and working tools such as a compass and square arranged according to a set pattern. The footwork of the initiation ritual led the new Mason through this ceremonial space, reinforcing physically the lessons, lectures, and charges. Together, visual representation and physical routine created an immersive experience of Freemasonry’s mysteries. For one evening each month, the tavern became the Temple.

At two metres tall, the tracing board would have been an imposing sight in the flickering candlelight of the lodge room. However, how exactly the lodge displayed it in Olmstead’s tavern remains a mystery. In a dedicated meeting space, the lodge furniture might have a permanent or semi-permanent presentation. However, Rideau Lodge moved regularly; they met first in a space provided by a local merchant, then at Olmstead’s, and later in the tavern of another brother, Abel Adams. Some of the lodge’s artifacts, such as its candlesticks, were smaller than examples from lodges with permanent homes, presumably so they could be stored in a chest between meetings.

Ritual Masonic images could lie on the floor or hang on a wall. When Library and Archives Canada paintings conservator Mary Piper Hough prepared the tracing board for exhibition in 2022, she found evidence that the painting had been rolled, perhaps for easy storage. However, the lodge accounts include two charges for “framing the carpet,” which suggests that it also hung on the wall. Hough also discovered that the canvas had been cut, perhaps to remove it from a frame. The lodges likely displayed the tracing board in different ways over its history and adapted it as necessary to the premises.

After George Burritt lent the board to Kemptville Lodge in 1849, its new custodians had it reframed, and it probably remained on the wall from that time forward. Like Rideau Lodge, Kemptville Lodge (later renamed Mount Zion Lodge) met in a succession of temporary spaces, but then it settled in a permanent home after 1877. A thin white line of paint around the edge of the board found during conservation treatment suggests that white painted molding once framed the board, perhaps like the treatment of a painting of Moses and the burning bush—another Old Testament story that is significant in the advanced Masonic degrees—at Scipio Lodge in Aurora, New York. The temporary quarters where Rideau Lodge met would have made this form of display impossible.

A Masonic painting of Moses at the burning bush.
Unknown artist, Moses at the Burning Bush, early 1820s. Scipio Lodge, Aurora, NY. Credit: Marianita Peaslee

Yet it was in Kemptville that the old tracing board also outlived its usefulness, and the lodge minutes record a possible explanation. In 1898 Brother Manning Smith, a local lawyer, presented Mount Zion Lodge with a set of lecture charts: three printed tracing boards specific to the three degrees. The Mount Zion Lodge fonds at Library and Archives Canada includes a chromolithograph third-degree tracing board, which may have been part of Smith’s gift.

A Masonic tracing board showing a coffin.
Third-Degree Tracing Board, after John Harris. Late 1800s. Library and Archives Canada

Based on the work of British Masonic artist John Harris, Jr. (1791-1873), this pattern of tracing board gradually became standard issue in British and Canadian lodges from the mid-nineteenth century. The Rideau Lodge tracing board became obsolete in the 1890s for the same reason that it had been desirable in the 1810s: the visual presentation of Masonic lore had evolved. Even in small town Ontario, Masons kept pace with the latest ritual refinements.

A remarkable survival, the Rideau Lodge board elegantly illustrates how integral ceremonial—even sacred—space was to the articulation and transmission of Masonic legend. As an arresting decorative object, the tracing board lent mystery and solemnity to a humble lodge room. As a mind palace, it helped initiates to use renaissance mnemonic methods to commit Masonic knowledge to memory. As a plan of the Temple of Jerusalem, the key site of Masonic legend, it served as a guide for the organization of the lodge’s space and a map of ritual footwork. Two centuries ago, the presence of this striking and esoteric representation of Masonic mysteries helped to transform a modest rented space into a ceremonial temple where shared secrets forged and strengthened the bonds of brotherhood.

Forrest Pass is a curator at Library and Archives Canada. His research on Masonic material culture in Canada has appeared in the Journal for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism and Dress: Journal of the Costume Society of America.


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