Author note: Recently, I presented on how Freemasonry, both speculative and operative, can be found in the noble art of horticulture. This article, one of three, contains a more in-depth explanation of the presentation.
Who are Freemasons? When you Google what Freemasons are known for, often pictures of grand builders and architects appear. Other images populated include pyramids, temples, monoliths, spires, and buildings. While these are all true and applicable to a certain extent, I want to discuss another noble and practical entry that is often ignored: gardens. In this series, we will examine the aspects of a garden (to include its design, purpose, and content) and their ties to Freemasonry.
Gardens are as applicable to Freemasonry, as is the building of Solomon's Temple. For one, there are a myriad of types of gardens. Sculpture gardens, stone gardens, foliage gardens, vegetable gardens, flower gardens, etc. Further, all these gardens use tools (both operative and speculative) employed by Freemasonry, such as the trowel.
The trowel is one of the essential tools to a Freemason. As speculative masons, we are taught that the trowel symbolizes the "spreading the cement of brotherly love and affection; that cement which unites us into one sacred band, or society of friends and brothers, among whom no contention should ever exist, but that noble contention, or rather emulation, of who best can work, and best agree." Further examining the trowel, the tool's versatility, and its depiction in use amongst Freemasons and gardeners are prolific. While Freemasons use the Masonic trowel, so is the garden trowel used by the Order of Free Gardeners.
The Order of Free Gardeners is a fraternal society founded in Scotland in the middle of the 17th century and later spread to England and Ireland. Like numerous other friendly societies of the time, its principal aim was to share secret knowledge linked to the profession and mutual aid. The Order of Free Gardeners focused on the best knowledge in gardening and horticulture. Gardening is the practice of growing and cultivating plants as part of horticulture. Horticulture is the agriculture of plants for food, materials, comfort, and beauty for decoration. Horticulturists apply knowledge, skills, and technologies to grow intensively produced plants for human food and non-food uses and personal or social needs.
While Free Gardeners have always remained independent of Freemasonry, the two orders' history and organization show numerous similarities. For instance, their primary insignia is of the square and compass with a pruning knife. Coinciding with the rise of the Order of Free Gardeners was the rise of garden landscapes. Wealthy landowners, who are speculated to have been Masons and who were interested in Renaissance architecture and the design of formal gardens for their vast estates, became intrigued. These landowners commissioned Free Gardeners amongst others to design gardens that communicate with us today.
For Masonic garden designers, both architecture and garden ornament was just as important as the garden's planning; indeed, the three were inseparable.
A garden is an interface between nature and art, and there are many examples of gardens in which nature and art are combined to communicate with us to convey a message. That message may be moral, philosophical, spiritual, or esoteric. A message can be created in a garden in three different languages. The language of form and shape, the language of the plants and their symbolic meanings, and the language of the manufactured features that are placed in the garden. For Masonic garden designers, the plants, architecture, and garden ornaments were given equal importance.
When designing a garden, mathematics and specifically geometry become critical tools. For Freemasons, geometry, or more specifically, sacred geometry, which is that geometric order (shapes, curves, and constructs) that precedes all physical existence--that geometry invented by the Great Architect of the Universe as a structure through which to order all of creation.
Under this tradition, its symbols take on metaphysical and symbolic meanings. "Geometry, or Masonry, originally synonymous terms, is of a divine and moral nature," wrote William Preston, a seminal figure in 18th century British Freemasonry.
"By Geometry, we may curiously trace nature through her various windings to her most concealed recesses. By it, we discover the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Great Artificer of the Universe… A survey of nature, and the observation of her beautiful proportions, first determined man to imitate the Divine plan, and to study symmetry and order."
An example of the language of form and shape is the motif of the center, the idea that when one marks the center of sacred space, one is symbolically marking the center of the world, the axis Mundi. This concept found heavily in Georgian gardens is emblematical of the circle and dot picture found in Freemason lodges, where the point or center of the circle is the individual brother. The circle is the boundary line of his duty to God and man, beyond which a man should not allow his passions, prejudices, or interests to betray him. Like how people can relax, play games, and enjoy nature, yet should control how they behave. This design is known as the circumpunct.
The garden may also have multiple points of focus, where people may sit and gather and enjoy the scenery. Supporting the scenery are often works of art, statues, and central plants. The Renaissance garden designers filled their gardens with motifs from classical mythology, taken from Greek and Roman works. These motifs were put there to convey a message. For example, Hercules' statue in the garden of the Villa Castello in Florence was to denote courage and virtue, characteristics that Freemasonry honors and exemplifies. An even more direct influence of Freemasonry in garden design can be seen in the New Garden beside a lake at Potsdam, built by the Rosicrucian King Frederick William II of Prussia. One of the Rosicrucian motifs in the New Garden is an icehouse in the form of an Egyptian pyramid, which is emblematical to [Freemasonry's] pyramid and the all-seeing eye.
In reviewing this first part of the series, we can see Freemasonry is a garden's design. Some pivotal content of a garden applies aspects of sacred geometry and gives a focus of purpose--growing from the design and placement of motifs in a garden. In our next essay, we will look more at the structures in gardens, both at their design and in their message.