Featured Post

Hope Springs Eternal: The Mary Wheeler Interview

Mary and Tim Wheeler, with son Christopher.  Courtesy Mary Wheeler. Prepare yourself(s) for an amazing interview with a largely u...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pillars of the Community

The Hôtel du département de la Haute-Garonne--the departmental government headquarters--recently attracted our interest due to the two massive pillars at its entrance; the free-standing columns flank the entrance to the street--"both a ceremonial space and a shortcut"--that bisects the edifice diagonally. They are set well before the true facade of the building. To a mind so primed, these two pillars surmounted by globes bring to mind Jachin and Boaz, the pillars on the porch of Solomon's Temple.

As we have already discussed these pillars, it might be useful to establish a bit of historical background and demonstrate the link these pillars have to Freemasonry. We will here quote extensively from Mackey's encyclopedia.

Under the heading of PILLARS OF THE PORCH, Mackey writes of architect Hiram of Tyre: "these pillars he set at the entrance of the porch on the right hand, or South, and called it Jachin, and the other at the left hand, or North, and called it Boaz."

The fact these had names indicate that they were more than structural or ornamental elements:

"For the pillar Jachin, derived from the words Jah, meaning Jehovah, and achin, to establish, signifies that God will establish His house of Israel; while the pillar Boas, compounded of b, meaning in and oaz, strength, signifies that in strength shall it be established."

Most of this entry is a dry summary of the appearance of these pillars and the controversy over their exact measurements. What is important for us is that the pillars were surmounted by globes; or at least have been interpreted that way by Freemasons and thus often depicted:

"Each of these pillars was surmounted by a chapiter....The shape and construction of this chapiter require some consideration....Rabbi Solomon, in his Commentary, uses the word ponel, signifying a globe or spherical body, and Rabbi Gershom describes it as "like two crowns joined together."

Of their Egyptian provenance he writes: "It is evident, from their descriptions, that the pillars of the porch of King Solomon's Temple were copied from the pillars of the Egyptian Temples."

Of the capitals he says "they may be justly said to have represented the celestial and terrestrial spheres."
"As [Masonic] symbols they have been very universally diffused and are to be found in all rites. Nor are they of a very recent date, for they are depicted on the earliest tracing-boards, and are alluded to in the catechisms before the middle of the eighteenth century."

"It was, however, Hutchinson who first introduced the symbolic idea of the pillars into the Masonic system. He says:

The pillars erected at the porch of the Temple were not only ornamental, but also carried with them an emblematical import in their names: Boaz being, in its literal translation, in thee is strength; and Jachin, it shall be established....The Masonic symbolism of the two pillars may be considered, without going into minute details, as being twofold. First, in reference to the names of the pillars, they are symbols of the strength and stability of the Institution; and then in reference to the ancient pillars of fire and cloud, they are symbolic of our dependence on the superintending guidance of the Great Architect of the Universe, by which around that strength and stability are secured."

A second entry [PILLARS, TWO GREAT] is also worth quoting

"The oldest existing Tracing Boards of early Eighteenth Century Lodges contain the two Pillars. …. two pillars in the Tracing Boards in the oldest of the Lodges must have referred to the two pillars described in the Cooke MS., one of marble and one of "lacerns," or tile."

"When the Allegory of Solomon's Temple was introduced into the Second Degree, perhaps about 1740 or 1750 in its present form, the two Great Pillars belonging to it came into a prominent place. This meant that the older Lodges then had two sets of Pillars. Whether the former was dropped out, or the two became coalesced, it is impossible to know."

"Two problems about the Temple pillars are not yet solved: first, whether they stood out on the platform beyond the Temple, or stood in the facade of it, and as structural members of the building; second, what their height was. The narrative in the Book of Kings does not give an answer to either question. On the basis of the general custom in Egypt and in the Near East it is most likely that the Two Pillars stood apart from the building...."

"….In both the oldest Minutes and the oldest engravings the two Globes appear to have been unconnected with the Pillars. They were put sometimes in one place in the room and sometimes in another. Remarks incorporated here and there in the Minutes suggest that the Brethren used them to represent "the universality of Masonry," not in the sense that Masonry took in everything but in the sense that Lodges are constituted in every country. One globe was the sky, the other the land; together they made up the world…"

"By a similar development of symbolic interpretation the Terrestrial Globe came also to mean the earth, the earthy; the Celestial, to mean the heavenly, the spiritual. When the Globes and the Pillars were combined both sets of symbolism were synthesized, so that as used in modern Speculative Rituals they are very rich in significance...."

As for the departmental Hôtel, Floriana de Rosa, writing about chief architect Robert Venturi says: "Venturi considers it important to give the observer the pleasure of discovering something new each time, through elaborating on motifs which are made recognisable by their latent familiarity."

It would seem as though de Rosa is saying that Venturi recognizes that the adventure of discovery rests in reinterpreting tradition by utilizing images which might be called archetypes, potent images with subconscious power. Their very power lies in the recognition that these motifs represent something, if only their own continuity. In an echo of architecture parlante, Venturi's partner (and wife) Denise Scott Brown writes in an article entitled Talking Sheds:

"Architecture's communicative function was disregarded throughout the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1950s, Robert Venturi and I independently developed a strong interest in it....The idea of the building as a shed with communication on it has influenced all our work but particularly our civic buildings." (boldface added)

An interest in communicating, however, never usurps the fundamental goal of a building's purpose: "Two logics of functionality one of the immediate users, the other of the broader community must be satisfied in any design."

According to a bio on the same site: "In contrast to many modernists, Venturi uses a form of symbolically decorated architecture based on precedents.....In contradiction, Venturi also considers symbolism unnecessary since modern technology and historical symbolism rarely harmonize."

So, it would appear that aside from the intriguing renewal of the tradition of architecture parlante which we have already examined in relation to Freemasonry and the Egyptian revival, the architects here were mostly concerned with functionality as opposed to symbolism. But Venturi and Brown do emphasize the link with tradition; indeed the column of the Hôtel were inpsired and refer to a pair of pillars which once adorned the Pont de Minimes (built by Joseph-Marie de Saget, 1760-1763). Thus, it may be that in this design the pillars serve no symbolic function for the architects themselves; this doesn't, however, imply that this is so for the original architect--our main man Urbain Vitry, Masonic affiliation unknown, Egyptianizing tendencies clear and present.

According to one website, Urbain Vitry, as city architect, had these columns , um "erected" on the bridge in 1832. This was four years before his design for the Terre Cabade cemetery with it's overtly Egyptian obelisks was approved and three years before the obelisk commemorating the Battle of Tolouse was begun. We have already speculated that the Terre Cabade and Obelisk may include Masonic symbols; given this it's hard to avoid asking the same of the Minimes columns.

The Minimes columns were destroyed to make space in 1940, but found new life fifty years later at the entrance to the Hôtel.

The free-standing pillar as a temple component seems to have originated in Egypt; the practice of placing obelisks at temple entrances is well-documented and appears to have become common in the Middle and New Kingdoms.

This also features in Phoenician temple architecture: "In Phoenician architecture, the column fulfilled a ritual rather than purely structural function, with pillars possibly representing gods." Unsurprisingly, Temple architect Hiram of Tyre included them in his design of Solomon's Temple. His exact design remains uncertain: globe, crown or lotus flower? Mackey and Freemasons preferred the globe.

We would argue that give that the columns are free standing and globed, along with the circumstantial evidence surrounding Vitry possible linking him to Freemasonry, there is a good chance that his Minimes columns were Masonic references; ironically, given Venturi's professed ambivalence towards symbolism, their placement and function on the Hôtel put the globed pillars back in a more direct Masonic context.

It's the pair of pillars as a free-standing architectural element which makes this so, for the pillar or column surmounted by a ball finial is not entirely unique to Masonic architecture. The pillar with ball (ho-ho!) is a common form for market crosses. Briefly, a market cross was a medieval marker indicating where the market was held. Shaft and ball "crosses" can be found in Colston Bassett (1257; rebuilt 1831), Highburton (base, 14th c.; column, 18th or 19th c) Halesowen ("medieval; blown over and restored in 1908), Repton ("medieval"), Bonsall (pillar dated 1687; base is medieval), etc. These are just a few we have discovered; there must be many more. Interesting is that althought the bases are ususally quite old, it seems as though the use of the column and ball is usually a later, often 19th century addition.

Who know how many were of this model? Many were destroyed by the Puritans, according to P.H. Ditchfield in ch. 8 of his book English Villages.

In The Migration of Symbols, there is a long discussion about the perrons of the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. These were essentially symbols of the judicial authority of the Prince-Bishop; after time is came also to symbolize a city's commercial liberty. Liège itself for example has a perron of the column and ball type and it appears in this form on coins dating to the 12th century. Author Goblet d'Alviella speculates that this may have derived from a Greco-Roman import; he notes that it while it may be a native Druidic symbol and that the Saxons venerated pillars, the ball is an evolution of the symbol from that of a fir-cone; for various reason he concludes:

"It may therefore be asked if the addition of the fir-cone to the perron of Liege is not due to the syncretic influence of Gallo-Roman art, which would thus have brought the Germanic column within the limits of classic paganism, as, at a later period, the Church introduced it into Christian society by surmounting it with a Cross. Perhaps also it was thus desired to keep alive in the monument a phallic signification, whilst correcting whatever too great coarseness this symbol might have had in its primitive form."

We recall that the obelisk was said to symbolize a petrified ray of light. Certainly it evolved from a phallic symbol; this would not necessary be inconsistent if we consider the life-giving properties of the sun were regarded mostly as masculine, as opposed to the earth or the moon which were usually characterized as feminine.

These perrons also correlate with English market crosses; they too were placed where judicial proclamations were read. They also symbolized a town's right to have a market and thus also echo the perrons of Liège.

So. The flight of fancy inspired by a walk in Toulouse, even a virtual walk, begets associations and quillindrums beyond the mind's imagining. We pretend that this means nothing. And it does mean nothing. It's like pulling a gun at a snowball fight.

The phallic ray of light, progenerative masterman, duplified. Temple front, civic god. Standing on the porch: by thus shall it be established. Tautological conundrum, these two pillars, globed: as above, yadda yadda. On this building, the Hôtel, oh tell? Monsieur Parlante, as in architecture, bedevil'd. A place of justice, of law, of commerce.

We have spoken of the Age of Enlightenment as a new kind of civic religion, where free enterprise beckons and comes into play; a revolutionary economic model with unintended? consequences. The pillars as symbol of economic liberty, yet with a theocratic vibe. Republican outpouring a later interpretation? A-dingle a-dangle, where is the wangle, the belated haggle; the conclusion to the deal?

There is none. The building echoes the past, and the ubiquitous Vitry, eau de vie. His pillars, now religiously placed on the porch of the civic temple, once advertised a brand of absinthe...

1 comment:

  1. The moral of this post, btw, is that if you don't know where you're going, drink heavily and go poetic. I put off re-readng this for a few days and am not too chagrined at the ending, after all!

    I managed to briefly skim through someone's PhD thesis on Vitry and don't think he was a Freemason.

    Been seeing lots of pillars with fir-cones lately, too, but none of them free-standing before buildings; flanking gates, yes, but not like the departmental Hôtel....


Thanks for taking the time to comment!

Need to add an image? Use this code: [ximg]IMAGE-URL-HERE[x/img]. You will need to remove the the boldface x's from the code to make it work.