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THE TRESTLE BOARD
by W.B. Harold Meij
One of the main objectives of a Mason is to endeavor to improve himself throughout the several stages of life. Freemasonry has devised three degrees whereby its members can symbolically improve themselves, learning by experience and from fellow members along the way. What makes Freemasonry so special is the fact that like-minded people can share experiences, viewpoints and knowledge from a common base. The several symbols, rituals and “teachings” of Freemasonry are designed to be an initial push, or merely a seed to “jump-start” the mind - what people take out of it depends on how much effort they add themselves. Just like a seed, it cannot grow without light, water, warmth, soil, and many other factors. Similarly, Masonry and minds cannot grow without participation of those involved in it.
Yet all this must start somewhere, and Freemasonry has provided ample material through symbols, items, rituals and the like to serve as such seeds. One of the most important of these teaching tools that has been used throughout the long years has been the trestleboard.
What is it? Where and how did it originate? Why are some trestleboards different than others? Why have they changed through time?
As each degree has its own unique “teachings”, so are there different trestleboards for each degree. As this is the first attempt to shed some more light on this all-important item, and as any trestleboard is so rich in symbols, it will be difficult to cover all subjects in one paper. Therefore, I have chosen to focus on the first degree trestleboard.
The trestleboard has been a central tool for Masonic teachings, but the form of the trestleboard has changed throughout time. In ancient times the need for secrecy was larger, as dis- and mis-information about Freemasonry required its members to pay particular close attention to what, and how, Masonic “teachings” were given. For this reason, the trestleboard, with the several objects and symbols, were drawn in sand from memory. No written copies were available. In former times, it was the duty of the Tyler to literally draw the trestleboard in the sand inside the Lodge, or other meeting place, at the beginning of each meeting. In effect, not only was the Tyler responsible for literally tyling the Lodge, but also, by drawing the trestleboard, to enable the brethren to commence their work - something most of us would today identify as being the responsibility of the Worshipful Master.
This historical background can still be seen in England, where this practice was called “drawing the Lodge.” In France it was termed “plan de la Loge,” presumably because without the “plan” there could be no work. In France the trestleboard was termed “le tableau,” which is more likely in reference to painting the board of later years, and in England it was often called a “tracing board,” for it was the Tyler that had to trace the symbols from memory. Considerable time had to be spend by the Tyler to memorize the correct symbols and placement for each degree, and there are records that he was sometimes compensated with a small fee for his efforts.
During later periods, meetings often took place in taverns, and chalk and charcoal were used to draw the trestleboard on the wooden floor. This way, should the need arise, the trestleboard could immediately be erased without a trace. Indeed, as taverns were public, it was standard practice to erase the trestleboard at the end of all functions, and it was the duty of the youngest member of the degree in which the meeting was held, to see to it that all traces were erased. It is for this reason that mops and pails were often listed in a Lodge’s standard inventory. The tedious job of having to draw the trestleboard before every meeting with chalk and charcoal later gave way in the 18th century to permanent wooden, or cloth trestleboards being fixed to the floor through tape and nails. This was probably because the need for secrecy lessened during this period, and many lodges had obtained a more permanent location to meet than the local tavern. It was also better for the tavern operator, or owner, for despite all the cleaning, chalk and charcoal probably still left some nasty stains.
In former times, a lodge usually had only one wooden trestleboard, showing the symbols for all three degrees in one board. These permanent boards eventually were replaced by tracing boards, one for each degree, which were generally smaller, more durable, and illustrated the same points when taken together. With three trestleboards, all the important and relevant symbols of each degree could be included in detail - as they are generally done so today.
Placement of the trestleboard
As can be seen from the above historical background, trestleboards were originally drawn on the floor of the meeting place. This is still so in many European Lodges. In the USA, the trestleboard is a permanent board, placed in the Lodge when the need for instruction arises, and thus the term trestleboard is most likely derived from boards being placed on trestles. In our lodge for example, we use only permanent trestleboards for degree work, and the lodge carpet actually functions as the “ancient” tableau, showing only the most important of symbols - the blazing star, indented trestle and checkered cubes. It is therefore interesting to note that the indented trestle, and checkered cubes of our lodge are almost always found on ancient trestleboards.
This is in contrast to many lodges in Europe, where the floor is barren, and when lodge work commences, the trestleboard (which can be as big as our carpet) is placed within the lodge. This is still common in many German and Swedish lodges, whereby several brethren, following strict ceremony, carry the large (usually folded) trestleboard into the lodge during the opening ceremonies, and remove it at the closing of a lodge.
In European lodges, the trestleboard is placed in the center of the Lodge, stretching from East to West.
The trestleboard is never to be treaded on, except by the WM for instruction or by the candidate in the work of the third degree.
Some lodges actually “build” their trestleboard using life-size objects. For example, on the carpet would be placed a real rough ashlar, a real perfect ashlar, a real light (for the sun) and a covered one for the moon and so on.
Dimensions of a trestleboard
The traditional dimensions of a trestleboard are supposed to follow the “golden rule”, i.e. 1:1.62 (1+√5 / 2 - also known as Sectio Divina, Sectio Aurea, Divine proportion, Golden Mean, Golden Phi etc.) The Golden mean is a natural number that is said to arise out of the basic structure of the universe. A brief explanation of this number is essential to understand why it should be incorporated in the dimensions of a trestleboard.
When one starts with the first two numbers 0 and 1, and make a list in which each new number is the sum of the previous two (i.e. 0, 1, 0+1=1, 1+1=2, 2+1=3, 3+2=5, 5+3=8, 8+5=13 etc) the following series is obtained;
This series is known as the “Fibonacci series.”
By taking the ratio of any two sequential numbers in this series, we find that the range becomes narrower as we proceed as follows;
55/34 = 1.61764........... ∞
89/55 = 1.61818.....and so on, with each addition coming ever closer to, what is called “Phi.” We will look later as to why this number is so important, and significant.
In geometry, any rectangle whose sides are related by Phi (for example 13 x 8 or 34 x 21) that rectangle is called a “golden rectangle.” But taking such a golden rectangle (say 13 x 8 again) and turning its long side around one of its sides to create a new rectangle, the new rectangle will also be golden. In this example, taking the 13 x 8 rectangle and turning it will create a rectangle (13+8=) 21 x 13.
The same result happens when looked at it geometrically. For example, if we take a perfect square (hence dimensions are 1 x 1) and turn it as we have with the above rectangle, the resulting form will be a golden rectangle, as will be the next, and the next, and so on (please see illustration 15).
What makes phi so interesting is the following: we know that a proportion is the relationship of the size of two things. We also know that arithmetic proportion exists when a quantity is changed by adding some amount. A geometric proportion, on the other hand, exists when a quantity is changed by multiplying some amount.
Phi possesses both!
This is because phi + 1 = phi * phi (see notes 1. For more details on the subject see Conseil, D., “A Journey to the Center of the Letter G - A Pythagorician Meditation” which was presented to Sinim Lodge, Tokyo, Japan, 1997).
The famous Pythagoras is quoted as having said that “The golden ratio (phi) manifests in the whole of creation. Take the ratio of the length of a man and the height of his navel. The ratio of the sides of the Great Temple. The ratio between the long and short sides of a pentagram. Why is this? Because the ratio of the Whole to the Greater is the ratio of the Greater to the Lesser.”
So, how do we see this number (i.e. phi, or 1.618033987499..........) in real life? For example the Nautilus shell grows larger on each spiral by phi, the sunflower has 55 clockwise spirals overlaid on either 34 or 89 counterclockwise spirals, another phi proportion (See notes 3 for other examples).
We have now looked at some of the history behind trestleboards, why they are used, and already some of the significance of certain elements of trestleboards.
Let us proceed.
Placement of the Sun and Moon symbols on the trestleboard
An interesting difference which comes to mind when examining different trestleboards of different time periods, is the placement of the Sun and the Moon. Until the late 18th century, the Sun was usually placed in the North-East corner of the trestleboard (see illustrations 1,2,3,5,7,12,14), and the Moon in the South-East corner. However, when we look at more modern trestleboards, we note that the position is reversed (see illustration 4,6,8,9,10,11). The question is why?
According to our ritual, we learn that K.S. Temple was located so far north of the ecliptic, that the Sun, at its meridian height, could not penetrate any light there. We know that K.S. temple was located in the Northern Hemisphere, and the Sun would have risen in the South-East and fallen in the South-West. Therefore, the Sun would have shed its light into the north part of the Temple, unless the southern wall was much higher than the northern - of which there is no evidence (see Notes 2). Given this way of thinking, placing the Sun in the South-East (where it rises) corner is correct, and would be the literal, or physical placement. However, with this positioning, the north side of K.S. Temple would have received light, which is contrary to the ritual.
This placement is sometimes termed the “modern method” of placement.
However, we can also look at it from the other side. Unless the solar altitude angle is 90 degrees (which would not happen in the Northern hemisphere) then the Sun, if placed in the North-East corner would have cast a shadow on the northern wall, but would have shed its light everywhere else - as in the ritual. Taking this thinking, placing the Sun in the North-East corner is correct, and would be the symbolic placement. It is also symbolic because in Freemasonry all begins in the North-East corner. For example, the youngest Entered Apprentice is placed there (which is explained in the first degree), the first bricks of a building are laid there, and in many European lodges the Zodiac signs delineated in the lodge start in the North-East corner of the lodge, and end in the North-West of the lodge (there are none in the East).
This placement is sometimes termed the “traditional method” of placement.
Either way, symbolically the North is termed a place a darkness, because it always receives light, whereas the South, East and West (depending on the solar azimuth angle) always gives light from the Sun (see Notes 2).
The number of stars on the trestleboard
Another method of identifying whether a trestleboard subscribes to the traditional or the modern method, is the number of star delineated under the moon. Some (see illustration 10,13) show five stars, whereas others show seven. The five stars belong to the traditional manner, as in those days only five planets were known (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). Subsequently, Neptune and Uranus were discovered, and the number of stars was increased to seven, or the modern manner (even later Pluto was discovered, but that was only in the 1930's).
However, there are other explanations of the significance of the number seven, many of which are familiar to us. For example, seven alludes to the seven ancient sciences (rhetoric, grammar, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), the seven days of the week, the seven colors of the rainbow (i.e. light), the seven steps of the ladder, and the like.
Another interesting difference is the shape of the Moon. Traditional trestleboards show a half moon, or a full moon with a crescent. The main reason for this half or crescent moon is that the moon symbolizes our learning process, and that through receiving light (wisdom, as symbolized by the Sun) we should continually improve ourselves mentally - the ultimate goal of a Mason. This is reflected in German ritual, where the question is made as follows; “with what do you compare the Wardens?” The answer is; “with the Moon, for as the Moon receives light from the Sun, and reflects it back to light the night, so do the Wardens light the Brethren through the Worshipful Master, and aid in the search of the truth.”
Modern tresleboards, on the other hand, often show a full moon. This is because the Moon and Sun are sometimes compared as complementary objects to the black and white squares of the carpet. This is interpreted as being opposite sides to each other. This “opposites” are collectively called “The Law of Duality,” which include such notions as Moses (The prophet) and Solomon (The lawgiver) in English lodges, roles that convey the idea of exuberance vs. restraint. In American lodges this idea is denoted by St. John the Baptist (mid-summer) and St. John the Evangelist (mid-winter).
Over time trestleboards have changed in shape, form, and even in the symbols that are delineated. I hope to have shed some light on the significance of trestleboards, and thereby have supplied a good seed from which other brethren can build further on by studying more about this all important tool in Freemasonry. They say that sometimes, the more you try to answer something, the more questions you create. Indeed, that has been so in my case, where by studying the trestleboard, I have found more questions and unknowns than that which I started with. However, what is important is that all of those new questions are interesting, and which I hope others will want to hear, and thereby receive facts, views and opinions so that we all may learn and grow from it.
Proportion is the relationship of the size of two things.
Phi possesses both qualities.
If you study the Fibonacci series and the Golden Rectangle carefully, you will eventually realize that phi + 1 = phi * phi.
Consider: suppose that you start with a Golden rectangle having a short side one unit long. Since the long side of a Golden rectangle equals the short side multiplied by phi, the long side of our rectangle is one times phi - or simply phi.
Now suppose that you swing the long side to make a new Golden rectangle. The short side of the new rectangle is, of course, phi units long, and the long side is that times phi, or phi * phi. This describes a Geometric proportion.
But we also know from simple geometry that the new long side equals the sum of the two sides of the original rectangle, or phi + 1. This describes an Arithmetic proportion.
Since these two expressions describe the same thing, they are equivalent, and so
phi + 1 = phi * phi
The resulting proportion is both arithmetic and geometric. It is thus perfect proportion; you could think of it as the place on some imaginary graph where the curved line of multiplication crosses the straight line of addition.
2) Sun’s light:
Here is a model of how the sun would shed its light if a building, with equal walls, were placed in the Northern hemisphere.
3) Other examples of Divine Proportion in nature
Pine cones show the Fibonacci Spirals clearly. Here is a picture of a pinecone seen from its base (sorry the quality is a bit poor) and another with the spirals emphasized: red in one direction and green in the other.
Some common trees with their Fibonacci leaf arrangement numbers are:
Leaf arrangements of common trees:
Fibonacci numbers can also be seen in the arrangement of seeds on flowerheads. Here is a diagram of what a large sunflower or daisy might look if magnified. The centre is marked with a black dot.
You can see that the seeds seem to form spirals curving both to the left and to the right. If you count those spiraling to the right at the edge of the picture, there are 34. How many are spiraling the other way? You will see that these two numbers are neighbors in the Fibonacci series.
Look at your own hand:
If you measure the lengths of the bones in your finger (best seen by slightly bending the finger) does it look as if the ratio of the longest bone in a finger to the middle bone is Phi? What about the ratio of the middle bone to the shortest bone (at the end of the finger) - Phi again?
** Oosterveen, A.C., “Het Tableau” (presented to Orde & Vlijt Lodge #32, Gorinchem, The Netherlands, November 1997)
** MacNulty, W.K., “Freemasonry - A journey through ritual and symbol”
** Lawlor, R., “Sacred Geometry - Philosophy and Practice”
** Conseil, D., “A Journey to the Center of the Letter G - A Pythagorician Meditation” (presented to Sinim Lodge, Tokyo, Japan, 1997)
** Knott, R., “Fibonacchi Numbers and the Golden Section”
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Last modified: March 22, 2014