The Hermetic Code|
Unlocking one of Manitoba’s Greatest Secrets
Written by Carolin Vesely and Buzz Currie, edited by Margo Goodhand
by Trevor W. McKeown
This book, compiled from a series of newspaper articles interviewing Frank Albo, purports to prove that the art and architecture of the Manitoba Legislature Building, opened on 15 July 1920, holds significance for freemasons, or that Freemasonry is somehow relevant to its design.
Always a bad sign, the book opens like a detective novel written in the first person. Almost from the first page, stress is placed on occult symbolism, sacred geometry and secret societies.
It is clear that Frank Albo has mastered his field of religion and anthropology. It is clear that reporter Carolin Vesely has mastered the use of the first person narrative. What is equally clear is that neither of them has a particularly deep understanding of Freemasonry, or of logic.
Frank Albo may know his stuff when he identifies the Grand Staircase bison as a representation of the sacred bull or identifies fourteen lion heads as "probably... connected with sun-god worship." But he fails to explain how eight cattle skulls are meant to deflect evil. Or, more importantly, fails to demonstrate that the sculptor had that meaning in mind at the time.
The architect, Frank Lewis Worthington Simon [1862/03/31-1933/05/19]as can clearly be seen in a 1937 article from Canadian Thinker magazinewas aware that he was intentionally using ancient Greek sacred symbols. But when the authors start listing specificsand arbitrarily selected specifics at thatthey fail to demonstrate Simon's intent. Yes, the hall is 66.6 feet square, but referencing it to Cornelius Agrippa's identification of 666 with the sun in his De Occulta Philosophia is a bit of a leap.
Albo is also a little quick to assign masonic significance. What he calls a tessellated border or Greek Key is not the "tessellated border" of masonic usageoriginally seen in Browne's Master Key as a cord intertwined with knots, to each end of which is appended a tassel, but now depicted in masonic art as black and white triangles making up the border.
On page 65, Albo introduces "the masonic cubit" which he claims is 14.4 inches. Masonic author, the Rev. George Oliver, in his Antiquities of Freemasonry claimed that the masonic cubit was 18 inches, Jerome B. Frisbee writes in The Builder Magazine of October 1923 : "the Masonic cubit is the twenty-four-inch gauge". Neither provide citation and certainly the so-called masonic cubit does not appear in the ritual or lectures of regular Freemasonry. So where does Albo get his measurement? He doesn't say.
Albo would have us believe that a black eight-pointed star represents the pole star, but it could just as easily represent Ishtar as the planet Venus. Describing the second floor circular balustrade as a round altar is equally a stretch. A 1925 guide book notes that an altar should be placed there. It wasn't, and the author is only expressing an opinion. Round altars may have been dedicated to "dieties of the underworld", but no amount of talking about round altars can hide the simple fact that there is no altar there, there was no altar there, and Simon had no plansthat we know ofto put an altar there.
Albo is selective in his examples: eight petal rosettes, five archways, the thirteen steps of the Grand Staircase, and the thirteen-foot diameter of the balustradeallowing him to discover the Fibonacci series of 5, 8, 13. This may be significant of some esoteric idea; or an awareness of the importance of the golden ratio in architecture; or it may be a simple coincidence. Or it may be a sequence imagined by Albo. A complete inventory of all the objects, and their physical sequence should be determined before assigning any significance. But what does any of this have to do with Freemasonry?
What about Freemasonry?
The first masonic reference appears on page 27 when Albo describes the title page illustration of an eighteenth-century songbook, showing a domed temple flanked by spinxes and two obelisks, as a masonic songbook depicting Solomon's Temple with domed roof. There are a lot of assumptions and implications expressed in that simple sentence. Does this illustration represent the ideas of Freemasonry, of the book's illustrator, or of popular beliefs of the time? Was Simon aware of this illustration or belief? The former needs be demonstrated to assign any relevancy.
Then, on page 31, a large headline: "The Freemasons considered geometry to be an exclusive and sacred science which was handed down by God" followed by the full page frontispiece from Anderson's 1784 Constitutions, then a completely irrelevant and gratuitous image of the reverse of the American great seal and then in case you missed it a repeat of the headline from page 31 as a subhead on page 33. In the text, Albo goes further, adding, "The Freemasons considered geometry to be an exclusive and sacred science which was handed down by God to Hiram Abif, the builder of Solomon's temple." Perhaps, but, what does this have to do with the Manitoba Legislature? Yes, Frank Simon appears to have been using sacred geometry, or at least the math of the golden ratio, but the suggestion that he intended any actual 'magical' application is not supported by the evidence.
The author then asks Alba: "Are you going to tell me the Masons were somehow involved in making this building a temple?" [p. 33] He avoids answering the question by replying: "I became a Freemason myself last year."
He explains that the mosaic pavement is the representation of King Solomon's temple, "with a blazing star in the centre..." [p. 35] when describing the indented tessel on the second floor and the "blazing star" on the first, but he glosses over the absence of any mosaic pavement. So why mention it?
An accurate list of Manitoba premiers who were freemasons is then presented although only one of them is relevant to the issue of masonic influence on the architecture. Next, and equally irrelevant, is a depiction of a hermetic crypt described as representing a masonic lodge.
Alba states that everything in Craft Freemasonry "revolves around the building of King Solomon's Temple" [p. 39]. This is an oversimplification: one of the three degrees uses a mythical incident during the completion of the temple as an instructive lesson that has nothing to do with the actual construction. It also has nothing to do with the Manitoba Legislature or its architect, Frank Simon.
Alba has compiled a large number of facts, but has failed to demonstrate their relevance. For example, he claims masonic significance for the time and dates for the cornerstone and opening ceremonies, but admits he doesn't know who set those dates.
An addendum describing Freemasonry is, in the main, accurate but it makes some far-reaching claims regarding the relevance of the building of King Solomon's Temple, its contents and it's function as the foundation of "all" masonic ceremonies [p. 128.]
It is not until page 39 that Alba admits: "Funny thing is, I haven't been able to prove that he was a Mason at all, and I've got some pretty reliable contacts." He won't let go though, going on to say: "My hunch is that Simon was not a member of your run-of-the mill three-degree Freemasonry, but rather a more occult-inclined Masonic order." Details are not forthcoming.
Alba is correct in noting that the committee that had the final say over selecting the building's designthen-Premier Rodmond Roblin; Minister of Public Works, Colin Campbell; Deputy Minister Charles Dancer; and Provincial Architect Victor Horwoodwere all freemasons. And granted, they did select the design, but there is no evidence that they had any input into that design.
After citing a contemporary article in the Manitoba Free Press, "Farcical Architectural Competition" which asked if the committee had been involved in a "frame-up with some ulterior object in view", the rhetorical question is asked "Was that motive to ensure a Freemason designed the building?" Vesely notes that the allegation was never proven, implying that this was the alterior object when in fact the published article only questioned the need for a committee to oversee Leonard Stokes who had been engaged to make the choice. No mention of Freemasonry is made in the article. Perhaps Vesely has an ulterior motive.
Piling irrelevancy on irrelevancy, a 24 February 1912 letter from a backbencher to Roblin is quoted : "You will find the Old Man will always play the game with fellows who are square." The Old Man was James Alexander Ovas, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Manitoba, but the subject of the letter, or the game, is conveniently omitted. [p. 42.] But why mention it? There is no need to prove Ovas' masonic connexion which was public knowledge now and at the time.
That Simon trained in 1883 at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, claimedwithout citationto be known to employ many freemasons, is suggested as being relevant, as is the appearance at the time in France and Germany of a revival of Rosicrucianism described as a secret order "parallel to or perhaps arising from Freemasonry." [p. 44] What Rosicrucianism and what Freemasonry, is left unsaid, although a further imaginary linking of the two is made with the assertion that "Rosicrucians and Freemasons both claim a philosophical heritage in ancient Egypt." [p. 47] Again, what rosicrucians and what freemasons?
Much is made of a mural by Frank Brangwyn which depicts a wounded soldier, his shirt half torn off. Albo infers that this refers to the initiation ceremony when the candidate is presented with his left breast exposed. Unfortunately, the painting depicts the right breast exposed, and no one is saying that Brangwyn was a freemason, so again, what's the relevance?
Premier Rodmond Roblin, supervising architect Victor Horwood and principal contractor Thomas Kelly were freemasons or as Vesely repeatly calls them, "master Masons". Kelly was convicted of misappropriation of funds, so Freemasonry couldn't have had much influence on his morals. Horwood lost his job and Premier Roblin resigned so what influence could their Freemasonry have had on the architectural vision of Simon?
At about a third of the way through the book, things take a turn for the silly. The relevancy of noting the creation of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in 1922 [p. 49] escapes this reviewer, but describing the expression "hidden in plain view" as "a famous Masonic maxim" [p. 50] is breathtaking in its assumption. Hermetic perhaps, but who ever said it was masonic?
And then a photo of two pillars outside the lieutenant-governor's reception room are arbitrarily labeled Jachin and Boaz and a mirror in the room is identified with the reflecting mirror in the masonic chamber of reflection. No question is raised as to when the mirror was hung, or by whom, and if he, or she, was a freemason.
Alba doesn't answer these questions but goes on to state that "The room and much of the building seem to be full of Masonic iconography." [p. 65] What other iconography remains unsaid. What is mentioned, in an addendum, is a description of a series of seances held between 1921 and 1932, and freemason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's interest in spiritualism. Why not? These items are as relevant to Freemasonry as just about everything else noted in the book.
Moving from masonic symbolism to history, Albo tells us that an unidentified "Masonic historian in Vancouver" told him that within weeks of General Wolfe's death, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Québec was formed. [p. 71] Albo might have been better served if he had talked to a masonic historian in Québec. Wolfe died on 13 September 1759. The first meeting to form the Provincial Grand Lodge of Canada (not Québec) was held a full ten weeks later on 28 November 1759, and they didn't receive a warrant to actually constitute themselves a Provincial Grand Lodge until 5 May 1764. The Grand Lodge of Québec was established on 20 October 1869.
He claims: "The Freemasons began in England in the early eighteenth century as a medieval guild of stonemasons, although many within the craft claim its lineage dates back to the pharaohs of Egypt". [p. 81] He further claims: "some Masons and a very unique Rosicrucian order trace their origin to a mystery school [Thutmosis III] supposedly founded in 1489 BCE." [p. 86] conflating the eighteenth century with mediaeval times can be blamed on sloppy editing, but failing to identify the "many" who claim an Egyptian lineage is sloppy history.
All this leads Vesely to ask: "So you thing Frank Worthington Simon was paying tribute to the roots of Freemasonry by setting up these sphinxes with the pharaoh's name on them?" [p. 86] Albo again refuses to answer Vesely's question head on but then segues into: "The Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn was founded in London in 1888 by three Freemasons." [p. 87] Well, two of them were freemasons at the time. Regardless, the connexion becomes tenuous when the only link between Frank Simon and Freemasonry is the fact that he was in Edinburgh at the same time that a fringe masonic group opened a temple there. To call it an "exclusive intellectual circle" that would have caught the attention of Simon is unsupported.
Art and architecture
Painter Augustus Vincent Tack's mural in the legislative chamber is edged by a decorative tree. Albo claims that this represents the kabbalistic tree of life which "had a major impact on western esotericism in all its formsFreemasonry, Rosicrucianism, the works." [p. 92] A citation, any citation, justifying either claim would have been welcome. Albo doesn't claim Tack was a freemason so, again, what's the relevance?
Albo claims that Septimus Warwick is credited in the Dictionary of Scottish Achitects, and the Dictionary of English Architects, with providing the working drawings and being the on-site architect. Actually, the Dictionary only says that Warwick was engaged to "assist in the provision of the working drawings." Albo claims he was a freemason but doesn't provide details.
The five Ws
Historical research, like detective work and good reporting, boils down to the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why.
The "who" are the competition assessor, Leonard Stokes; architects, Simon and Warwick; draughtsman, Boddington; provincial architect, Victor Horwood; and artists, Frank Brangwyn and Augustus Vincent Tack. Warwick, who assisted in the working drawings, and Horwood who oversaw much of the construction were the only two freemasons involved. Neither have been shown to have influenced the design or decoration.
The "what" is a collection of architectural details: two columns with nothing to suggest that they have masonic significance; a mural of a soldier with a torn shirt painted by a non-mason; and... that's about it. The use of classical elements, Egyptian or Greek, is hardly noteworthy in the context of architecture of the period.
The "where" raises questions of location. Without complete descriptions any symbolism derived from sequence or ocurrence is meaningless.
The "when" raises the question of relevance. Suggesting that Simon may have had some contact with the Golden Dawn while he was in Edinburgh doesn't make it true, or even relevant. The fact that spiritualism enjoyed a vogue in the decades following the Great War equally has no relevance. A list of premiers who were freemasons has no relevance; only the premier of the day, and his masonic membership, has any relevance. And considering the financial fiddling of Horwood et al, obviously the teachings of Freemasonry did not have much relevance to them.
The fifth question of "why" becomes irrelevant in the absence of any substantial answers to the first four. But a lot of thought has been put into answering that question and many suppositions are put forward by Vesely and Alba. Unfortunately none of them are relevant to demonstrating that there was a masonic influence on the design and completion of the Manitoba Legislature Building.
An entertaining if somewhat frustrating read, The Hermetic Code is bad history. Unfortunately, it has become the new script for tour guides showing people around the building. And that's how bad history becomes popular history.
The Hermetic Code, written by Carolin Vesely and Buzz Currie, edited by Margo Goodhand. [15 part series on Frank Albo's research into the architecture of the Manitoba Legislature, Winnipeg Free Press, November-December 2006.]
Frank L.W. Simon