The construction of Rosslyn Chapel, located north of Edinburgh in Scotland, was commenced in approximately 1446 by William Sinclair, who was reputed to have been a Knight Templar that was likely engaged in warfare in the Holy Land. While neither of those facts has been confirmed, the chapel he constructed is filled with images of stone that when viewed as a whole leaves the distinct impression that the site is religious. However, it is definitely not a Christian site and does not easily fit into any current well-known religious motif. It is, in a word, unique revealing evidence that the architect was very much involved with initiatory mysteries.
One of the stone images carved into the interior of the chapel symbolizes a Green Man, which in certain religious studies has been associated with so-called pagan religions. After carefully studying those images, it appears more likely that the Green Man is consistent with a more Masonic interpretation of the Deity than of any other religion or philosophy. The depiction is clearly that of a man’s head with leafy vines growing from inside extending outward through the mouth and traveling upward forming a dense bushy vegetation.
While the figure certainly could symbolize the never-ending cycle of seasons and regeneration commonly found in other clearly defined pagan symbols, its origin is Greek and Roman. To them, the Green Man represented the full flowering of education and thus was inspirational to those contemplating the pursuit of knowledge. The Green Man later found his way into Christian symbolism where he represented the immortality of the spirit and the resurrection of Jesus. Regardless of whether the Green Man represents Jesus linking Heaven to Earth, or the more simplistic pursuit of knowledge, it is undeniably the case that he also represents the growth of man’s spirit.
Art is a seed of man’s spirituality, for from a simple sentence in a masterful work of literature, or from one line drawn in a painting flow messages and ideas that those who either read, or observe may interpret for their respective personal improvement. It is the basis for mankind’s regeneration, or transmutation from a state of unknowing to a state of knowing – much like the ancient alchemists transformed tin into gold. Thus, the Green Man symbolizes the wisdom which man acquires from the knowledge he has gained as a direct result of his growth in spiritual matters commencing with the mustard seed, or smallest particle of spiritual knowledge imparted to him.
It is fair to inquire at this point about what art a Mason should explore. Should it be an examination of the Da Vinci painting The Last Supper, which excited so much interest in the recent titillating books and movies about the legend surrounding the ancient Knights Templar? Is it the full and complete absorption of all literary works written by Albert Pike? Or, are you expected to absorb other types of art and discern the messages about God from those? While the answer that all art is important to man’s growth is inexact, it is the truthful answer.
A Secret of the Freemasons is that an affinity to the pursuit of knowledge has never been solely because it benefits he who learns, but because it eventually benefits those with whom he who learns comes into contact. Masonic writers who have explored both the science and philosophy of alchemy have also provided us with insight into how the Green Man represents the benefit of one man’s knowledge to another man’s welfare. Freemasonry has consistently adopted the belief that the Supreme Architect of the Universe manifests Himself through human growth – the urge moving from within a human being to a manifestation of action. There is no greater miracle than that produced by the tiny mustard seed, which when planted in the Earth produces a bush many thousand times its own size. The Holy Bible contains a parable that uses the tiny mustard seed to illustrate an important spiritual truth about the strength of faith. In Freemasonry, the Craft teaches that the Supreme Architect manifests Himself through an infinity of forms which is implanted into the dark material earth. One of those forms is art, which Masons are taught to both understand and create.
Academics around the globe are presently engaged in a concerted effort to identify the historical beginnings of Freemasonry. They do so by pursuing several avenues that promise empirical certainty once fully analyzed. However, since Freemasonry includes a diverse quantity of disciplines, it is not at all likely that the true origins will ever be discovered without a thorough evaluation of the symbolism Masonry has selected throughout the ages to impart wise and serious truths. One famous Masonic writer has gone farther and asserted that the origins of Freemasonry will never be traced, because that origin is veiled in superphysical mystery. Whether or not we will ever know the complete truth about Freemasonry’s origin, one may begin the effort by pulling that veil aside and studying the diverse symbols of the Craft, as well as the various works of art created from the depths of man’s soul and spirit.
There are essentially two methods whereby man may grow: by observing Nature, or by creating and appreciating art. The true artist patterns his or her work after the laws of Nature, either adopting all that Nature has revealed, or assimilating so much of that which exists in Nature as is necessary to complete the artist’s intended design. It is from such designs that mankind learns the place of humanity in the Magnus Opus of all artwork – the grand design of the Supreme Architect of the Universe.
The art of deciphering the Secrets of the Freemasons and the symbols Masons use may be employed to unlock unsuspected wisdom that was quite likely originally possessed by those who lent those symbols to the fraternity. Ancient books with erroneous paginations, as well as a host of secret alphabets used throughout the ages should be included in the deciphering effort. For, subtle methods were often used to conceal divine truths from the uninitiated. By way of specific example, consider the literary works of Shakespeare, which some believe were actually the works of Sir Francis Bacon: that renowned Rosicrucian and Freemason, who is said to have been the legitimate son of Elizabeth I; dedicated to the charitable workings of the Craft; and in desperate need of “political cover” to avoid detection as the author of such politically inflammatory writings as those found in several of the Shakespearian plays. What is the truth? Can it be ascertained by studying the artwork itself? Is it worth knowing? Answers to those questions may only come to those who take the time to explore the works and decide for themselves.
The symbolism of the Green Man also teaches us that growth is experiential, that is, it may only be experienced to fully understand. Such is also so with regard to the “secrets” of Freemasonry. Those “secrets,” like understanding what growth means, cannot be revealed even if someone actually chose to sit down and explain them to the entire world. Like death, Freemasonry can only be “experienced,” and thus the “secrets” remain hidden from all who choose never to enjoy the experience. That is so with our Green Man, for it is from his mouth that vegetation grows and around his head that the resulting busy growth twines. He grows, he experiences and he becomes wise.
What about you?