Saturday, June 27, 2009

Clue #9: Albrecht Durer

The 9th Twitter clue, posted 2:15 p.m. PDT on Thurs., June 25th:

Albrecht Durer, whose father was a goldsmith,
was trained as a metalworker at a young age.

The clue refers to one of the great artists of the Renaissance in Northern Europe, the German, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). (We meet him again in Clue #22.) Although Durer is known primarily for his prints made from woodcuts and, especially, his engravings on metal, the tweet mentions his early training as a metalworker. The content reads like a sentence out of an art history text, nothing really provocative.

This, however, is Dan Brown -- a man in whose novels many a famed artist is a member of some centuries-spanning conspiracy. And, as it happens, Durer actually has long been rumored to have been a member of a centuries-spanning secret society. This is because Durer has been rumored for years to have been some sort of a Freemason from the pre-Grand Lodge era.

The basis of this rumor is the fact that some of Durer's pieces contain depictions of objects that have either real or reputed symbolic significance to Freemasons. The most prominent example of this is his piece shown above, Melencolia I, a copper engraving dating from 1514 (background here). (If you are using Microsoft Explorer as your browser, I suggest that you go to the File menu, select "New Window," and on the second window of this post, click on the image above to view a much larger image of the artwork as you read the description that follows.)

Masonic Symbols in Durer's Melencolia I

In this piece, an adult-sized female angel sits in thought, holding, for no obvious reason, a set of compasses such as might be used by a stonemason, carpenter, or architect. (Of course, the Compasses are well-known to be an important symbol in Freemasonry.)

Although the bottom of the etching shows the tools of a carpenter (a reference to Jesus, the carpenter's son?), the most prominent finished products appear to be stone, including a sphere in the lower left-hand corner, and a polyhedral prism (the thing shaped like the Superman logo) just above the dog, next to the hammer. The polyhedral prism and the sphere are both portrayed as exquisitely finished pieces of work, smooth pieces of worked and polished stone that call to mind the smooth or polished ashlar that represents, in Masonic symbolism, the individual Mason after he has worked to perfect his character. (I have seen actual stones exemplifying the rough ashlar -- unworked stone -- and the smooth ashlar -- smoothly polished stone -- in every Masonic lodge that I have ever visited.)

But if there is a smooth ashlar, where is the rough? There is no rough ashlar visible in the etching, although there is, in a way, a cowan. The derivation of this peculiarly Masonic word -- used to describe a non-Mason who tries to sneak into a Masonic meeting -- is uncertain. However, it has been related to the Gothic word choin and the Greek word kuon, which each mean the same thing: a dog. Of course, a dog is prominently visible in the etching, perhaps significantly, right between the two polished stones mentioned above.

Above the adult angel's right wing (the viewer's left) is an hourglass, recalling to mind the hourglass mentioned in a lecture accompanying one of the three basic Masonic degrees, or rituals of initiation. This symbolizes the brevity of life, the realization of which should encourage us to use our time well while we have it. (The Masonic scholar Coil states that this symbol came into the Masonic lectures late in the 18th century, but seeing it here raises questions about that dating; the hourglass does seem a timeless symbol of the quickness with which our lives pass.)

Next to the adult angel sits a cherub on what appears to be a somewhat worn mill wheel. Directly above the cherub is a pair of scales, calling to mind Justice, one of the Four Cardinal Virtues, which also occur as symbols in one of the Masonic degree lectures (the others being Temperance, Fortitude, and Prudence).

To the left of the cherub one sees a ladder. Jacob's ladder (see Genesis 28:10-22) is a symbol used in the lecture of the first degree of Freemasonry. A ladder with symbolic significance also appears in the degrees of the Scottish Rite, which are based on 'high degree' rituals, some of which date back at least to the earliest days of Grand Lodge Freemasonry, and perhaps earlier.

Other Masonic Symbolism in Durer's Art

There are other pieces by Durer that show what could be Masonic symbolism. His 1504 title page for Messahalah, De scientia motus orbis (an illustration also known as "Astronomer") shows a man holding a set of compasses; he appears to be measuring distances on a globe, however. His 1506 portrait of an architect shows a man holding a square, such as might normally be used by an architect or a stonemason or a carpenter. Neither of these pieces is really compelling as a Masonic reference; one expects an astronomer to use a set of compasses, and an architect to use a square.

Melencolia I, however, is another matter altogether.

Is 16th Century Durer Plausible as a Mason?

Of course, one of the major objections to considering Durer as some sort of secret Freemason is the fact that he died in 1528, almost two full centuries before the formation of the premier Grand Lodge of England in 1717. The earliest record of Masonic initiation in England occurs in 1641 (the initiation of Robert Moray into a traveling Scottish military lodge), although David Stevenson convincingly has shown that Freemason's lodges were formed in Scotland as early as 1599 (see his books The Origins of Freemasons and The First Freemasons). However, Scotland in 1599 was a long way in both time and space from Germany in 1528. How could Durer plausibly have been a Freemason, or a member of some sort of proto-Masonic group?

Maybe the same way that Bosch was.

The late historian of Freemasonry, John J. Robinson, presents a convincing case for the idea that Durer's contemporary, the Flemish artist Hieronymous Bosch (about 1450-1516) hid Masonic symbolism in at least one of his paintings, The Wayfarer (background here). (See Chapter 11, pp. 118-119 of Robinson's 1993 book, A Pilgrim's Path: Freemasonry and the Religious Right.) In Bosch's painting, Robinson finds references to Masonic initiatory ritual, as well as other Masonic symbols. I find Robinson's argument quite intriguing.

If Bosch, as a Flemish painter in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, somehow had access to Masonic initiatory symbols, then perhaps Durer did as well in the Germany of that period, or during his travels. (His whereabouts during his 4-year Wanderjahre -- quite the 'gap year'! -- are poorly known.) I don't know how it could have happened. However, the enigmatic evidence in Bosch's The Wayfarer and Durer's Melencolia I makes at least a plausible case for these artists being some kind of Masonic initiates.

Durer and The Lost Symbol

It's not hard to see where this could go, as far as The Lost Symbol is concerned. Some artwork of Durer on display in Washington, DC, has some clue for Robert Langdon to follow -- a clue regarding some Masonic conspiracy.

Sounds good to me.

[The image of Durer's Melencolia I, above, was obtained from the Wikimedia Commons through Wikipedia. The artwork and its reproduction are in the public domain.]
(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)


  1. This is a great post! I'm so happy someone else finds Durer as fascinating as I do. He's one of the reasons I became an illustrator in the first place!

  2. M.M.E., thank you for your kind words. Durer is a fascinating personage -- a larger-than-life, genius-plus-level talented figure. You have a great inspiration for your vocation.

  3. Dürer has already been featured in my novel Solomon's Key: The CODIS Project by R. Douglas Weber. The Masonic and Hermetic clues in his various works lead the protagonists or aid them in deciphering the Calvicula Salomonis The Greater Key of Solomon the King.
    In Melancholia there is also a magick square, and my novel details hidden messages in Dürer’s art relating to dates and secrets revealed in many of his other works. An infamous Black Quasi-Masonic Lodge, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and the Vatican face off in a race against time to discover the true secret the paintings and the Key of Solomon contain.
    Go to for further information.
    Thank you R Douglas Weber

  4. Sounds dodgy to me.

    Isn't it more likely that Freemasonry adopted symbols that were already used in European culture and that therefore appear in art predating the founding of Masonry? Dogs and scales are symbols used by the ancient Romans for various purposes. Does that mean Freemasonry was around before the birth of Christ?

    By this logic, you could also argue that since there's a sword in Durer's engraving of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a sword in the emblem of the Knights of Columbus, he was probably also a member of that organization.

  5. Anonymous: I can see your point. However, both my objective and my line of reasoning are rather different than I think you perceive them to be.

    First: It is true that, as Henry Wilson Coil put it, the symbolism of Durer's Melencolia I "seems quite as appropriate to Alchemy, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, or [yet] unclassified symbology" as it does to Freemasonry (Coil's Masonic Encyclopedia, 1996, s.v. "Durer, Albrecht"). However, there is more than a little reason to believe that modern Freemasonry was born precisely within a matrix composed of men interested in Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism; see, for example, Tobias Churton, The Magus of Freemasonry (his biography of Elias Ashmole, published in the UK under the title Magus), and Alain Bauer's recent book, Isaac Newton's Freemasonry. Thus, the fact that Durer chose to use such symbols actually raises the profile of the question of his potential Freemasonry.

    Second: Yes indeed, dogs and scales have been used as symbols from Roman times. However, the stonemason's compasses have not been so used from Roman times, to the best of my knowledge. It is in the context of the compasses, one of a very small number of quite central symbols within Freemasonry, that I make my argument to begin with.

    Third: As it happens, no one (including you) has made the claim that Durer was a member of the Knights of Columbus. (Indeed, this would be a somewhat psychotic claim to start with, since the Knights of Columbus have a well-documented founding date in 1882, over three centuries after Durer's death.) In the context of the rumors that seem to have existed for centuries to the effect that Durer was a proto-Mason, I was addressing the issue, would it even be plausible to think Durer might have been a Mason?

    Incidentally, I am going to enable e-mail notification to me of posts to this blog, so that I respond to comments in a more timely way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Thanks a handfull man

  7. Did you see that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has copy of Dürer's Melencholia I? They put the print on view this week. Details of the print were made into iPhone wallpaper!! This is a detail Dürer's magic square This is NOT a spoiler!

  8. The most important part in this piece of art is the square at the right top... The lost symbol itself is there...

  9. You might review this ethcing by Durer, as he illustrates what might be an "operative" lodge:

  10. Very interesting, thanks for posting this. I just had a question: I've always heard the (three) cardinal virtues listed as Faith, Hope and Charity. Are the four you listed specific to the Masons or have a I been mis-informed all this time?

  11. The thing about Masonry is that its origins are as ancient as the building trades. What we perceive as modern Masonry is just the current from of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. We have records of guilds of various kinds going well back into the Middle Ages, and we know that groups like the Pythagoreans held their secrets closely guarded in ancient times. To say that Durer was a Mason would not be strictly true in the sense that he was a member of a society that still exists in that ancient form today, but he could well have been a member of a group that held closely guarded geometrical secrets and used the tools of their trade as part of a system of symbols familiar to members of the group.

  12. whats the deal with 34 on row, and replaced 5 and 9.


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