masonic square and compasses

Victorian Lodge of Research



The first degree tracing board: some reflections and an exegesis

Bro. Jean-Michel David, PM

This paper is a little different to the contribution I made in open Lodge some time ago. This is for two principal reasons: the first is that most presentations I prefer to make ‘off the cuff’ or, as I prefer to call it, in the living moment. Hence the direction such takes varies somewhat according to circumstance and queries and input from assembled brethren.

The written form takes a different role, to my way of thinking, and herein are only some of the key points previously discussed and presented with the visual assistance of nearly a dozen differing first degree tracing boards and other similarly presented visual imagery. In this paper, I take for granted that the first degree tracing board is as basically the Harris version a century and a half old, and similar in so many respects to the central aspect of the first image accompanying this text on the next page.

frontispiece Grand Lodge of Scotland
frontispiece from Scottish Constitution, 1848

The tracing board, first and foremost, presents before our eyes the working Temple itself viewed, importantly, from a peculiar location within the entrance to the Lodge: the South-West. In our constitution, this is the location of organist and choir, the place from whence emerges sweet sounds of accord and harmony... and also the location from which the tracing board itself, usually located on the South wall towards the South-East corner, cannot be seen. The Junior Deacon also shares the same general perspective, save that he (or she for those Co-Masons working Emulation-type ritual) is already further within that which is depicted on the imagery of our board.

Each time that we open the tracing board is also a sign that the Temple is open for the Lodge to work as Freemasons.

As an aside, it may be worth noting that some constitutions open the Lodge in the third degree for all general work, leaving the Entered Apprentice and Fellow Craft to be open only during the working of those degrees, or special occasions.

Perhaps it is simply a reflection as to what I am used to, but the opening of the Lodge, in my personal opinion, should in the first place take place in the first. Furthermore, I would personally prefer to see the first degree tracing board not replaced by a higher one when opening in the second or third degree (on this point, it was heartening to find a similar note made by Mark S. Dwor - Cf bibliography). The Master does not close the Lodge in the first in order to open in the second or third, unlike a higher degree’s closure to resume work in the degree below it. To have displayed all three tracing boards when working in the third, or even in differing location (but that is perhaps the subject of another presentation), makes ritualistic sense - though perhaps would necessitate some rather awkward changes to the ways in which the tracing boards are kept within the same encasing.

But let us carefully look at our tracing board and describe its components, first as a literal reflection on the Lodge Room or Temple itself. Standing in the West, facing East, furthest from out viewpoint and left-of-centre is the Ionic pillar; to the left and near is the Doric; and to the right and half-way into the Temple is the Corynthian.

The careful and cautious reader will have observed that this is not in fact what is on the front cover of the Laws of the Scottish Grand Lodge as presented here-on. Rather, there on, and in a number of other early Tracing Boards, the Doric is in the East. Variations do occur, but shall continue in my description with our own common variant of the John Harris mid-19th century tracing board, presented as our second exhibit.

The tracing board of course here speaks for itself, though if I let it do so, there would be no words for me to pen. So allow me to, again, mention the obvious - or at least the obvious for those working our Constitution or a similar ritual.

Tracing Board Freemasonry first degree
John Harris 1st degree Tracing Board, mid-19th century

The pillars depict precisely their respective location within the Lodge and, by association, the Master in the East, the Senior Warden in the West, and the Junior Warden in the South. In case there was any doubt to this, the working tools, which also serves as Jewels for those respective high offices, are appropriately and respectively represented: leaning against the Ionic pillar is a square, against the Doric is a level, and against the Corynthian is a plumb-rule.

Also against the Doric leans oft, though not on the version I present, a sword, for nearby to the North and left is the place where Inner Guard and Tyler perform their respective duty. Near the Corynthian pillar on the right is also a rough ashlar, and near the Doric on our immediate left a perfect ashlar - with or without, depending on the version, the tripodic Lewis. These again reflect the actual location of the Ashlars in the working of our constitution, though in our case, of course, they are placed not on the ground as occurs in some jurisdictions, but on the Junior and Senior Wardens’ pedestals respectively.

Towards the East, a little further, it often seems, than the far-placed Ionic pillar, is the central altar on the face of which we may discern the dotted-circle (or point within a circle, to speak in more masonically recognisable tone), adjacent which is depicted two vertical tangents. In our constitution, unlike many others, this and the Master’s pedestal are one and the same, a simplicity that also veils profound wisdom.

Atop this pedestal is an open book, which we know to be, traditionally, the Bible, as foundational and exemplary Volume of the Sacred Law.

The whole rests on a tessalated pavement, in the centre of which is depicted a floor-cloth or working board, sometimes with a square or square-and-compass resting there-on.

Here is the first sign we present that this is more than mere depicted Temple, for it is exactly the inverse of our normal Lodge: the variagated Mosaïc pavement is only, in our case, a smaller rectangular part of the floor space. In the imagery presented, the sacred working space has been extended to the whole regions which would include all present. Again, I realise that in some constitutions the Mosaïc pavement indeed tiles the whole floor space, but this is of course not the case in most, and for many of us this is only represented as such in the tracing board.

From the Volume of Sacred Law extends upwards, seemingly lost in the depths of places on high, a ladder, upon which are representations of three virtues since mediæval times referred to as the theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Caritas.

Above the pillars, from left to right, are representations of the Sun, a Blazing Star, and the Moon, this last usually accompanied by a number of stars. More on these anon.

Each of the principal characteristics of the tracing board have been described - or nearly all. There remains but one also highly important element, acting as though the door through which the active imaginative faculty is asked to enter there-in: the frame itself, at once mimicking the tessalations of our own pavement, locating the four points points of the compass by which to place the image there-in contained and, importantly, framing the three-dimensional representation within a two-dimensional border, with, however, the four tessals seemingly re-breaking this bringing to flatness.

Others have, in the past and present, likewise used such bordered imagery to transcend towards spiritual heights, and in that sense the three tracing boards of each of the first three degrees have a similarity to the way in which the twenty-two Atouts of the tarot have also been used by some.

Here finishes the literal exegesis of the tracing board. Following our ancient forebears, however, we are also called to begin to reflect on the precise observation this first step has allowed by using those other three levels of exegetical reflection: the allegorical, the symbolic, and the spiritual or ‘secret’ ways. The further along these lines we delve, the higher along that depicted ladder we must climb, and the greater the possibility of errors or wishful thinking the author and traveller may be prone to. Better to travel, however, than remain solely upon the physical grounding made for our feet, not inner eyes. Nonetheless, what I offer I therefore offer simply for further reflection, no more.

The allegorical aspects of the three working tools in their usage in the unfortunate murder of our first symbolic grand master, Hiram Abiff, is already well illustrated in the third degree, and here but casually call it to mind. Likewise, the ladder upon which ascended and descended angels in Jacob’s vision is also well known - though simply note here that it rises from that volume which forms one of the three greater lights in Freemasonry.

The whole pavement, in its mosaïc form, likewise recalls that here the whole Temple is sacred, and the directive to Moses to ‘take off thy shoes, for here-in is sacred ground’ gives a clear indication that the work we are engaged in is itself sacred.

The three suspended lights certainly call to mind day and night with, respectively, the Sun and Moon. Yet more than this may be allegorically taken: the central light is, as mentioned earlier, a Blazing Star, and at times depicted with the all seeing eye in its centre. Until I saw versions of the tracing board with this clear depiction, I had taken it to perhaps be a representation of the Sun beyond the sun, as also spoken off in the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. The all-seeing eye gives, to both Christian and Kabalist, a further point of departure for further study.

The three theological virtues depicted upon the ladder call to one’s attention not only their relative rank, but that ascent is predicated on those virtues. Without Faith, without Hope, without Caritas, ascent is not possible. Or, to describe it in a more positive tone, on one’s ascent one meets and is meekly graced with the virtues of Faith, of Hope, and of Charity or Love - this final which, instructs us St Paul, is the highest of all virtues.

As symbolic representation, the tracing board thus also reminds us that once the Temple is open, it becomes, veritably, spiritual work. Spiritual, yet worked not in isolation, but rather in Fraternity: we individually contribute to the collective work that in turn benefits each individually. If I may here race ahead of myself to the ‘secret’ or spiritual exegesis, it shows that each Temple which we inhabit is supported by inner Strength, Beauty and Wisdom, and these are indeed the three forces that work within our very being and transforms - literally metamorphosises - each and every one of us ever so gently and slowly and with such grace.

The Kabalist will also mentally notice the peculiar representation of those three pillars in light of the three pillars said to form out of the Tree of Life. What is interesting, also, is that in each case both the tracing board and the Tree of Life representation may be akined to a depiction of the upward journey undertaken by not only the aspirant, but the adept.

At first view, however, the Tree of Life is surmounted by, on the right-hand side, the Sun, and on the left-hand side, the Moon. Our own Lodges normally reflect this in saying that the Sun is associated with the South atop the Corynthian column and with the Junior Warden, and the Moon atop the West Doric column and with the Senior Warden. These are on the tracing board therefore reversed. It could have been expected that the tracing board may have likewise reflected this - what appears to be a more consistent depiction. Yet, let us for a minute re-visit these three celestial lights as, in the first instance, Christian-derived trinitarian views, and then Kabalistic ones.
The central all-seeing eye of God the Father depicts his omiscience and wisdom; to his right sits his Son - the Son of the Sun, shedding his benign influence and singularly omnipotent; whilst on his left are the Moon and the ever-present stars of the heavens reminding us that even in the apparent darkness shines the beauty of his omnipresence.

Kabalistically, the depiction invites us the enter the Temple, to enter therein and become the Tree of Life, whereas normal depictions of the Tree of Life depict it as Adm Kadmon aproaching us. The left and right are thus equivalently represented: the tracing board is as though one enters the space - the Tree of Life is beholding a being already therein incarnated - us, and thus is not facing us.

Spiritual depictions are at times said to partially mirror the physical realm, and in this instance, this is a perfect example.

If we now take a look at the ashlars, they may likewise be viewed to be in a process of ongoing development. They metamorphosise from the rough to the perfect ashlar, there to be again transformed yet further to a higher state: the circling of the square as depicted as that next state on the eastern pedestal. It is not sufficient to render our rough smooth, or the unhewn stone to a perfect cube, but to transcend in utter trust to that state whereby the grace from on high may descend and unveil the destiny awaiting us - the Volume of the Sacred Law is here but part of the means put at our disposal by which we begin to transform perfected man into spiritual man, into Adam Kadmon.

The very frame also reminds the Royal Arch Freemason that there is indeed more to the inner Temple than has been revealed in the Craft Lodge, and that the sacred lies forever buried deep within for those who strive to build and adorn and to reveal and to keep - and this last word ought to perhaps be read in its earlier etymological sense.

How to conclude some words that cannot be completed? perhaps with some simple words: the tracing board opens to our eyes the Temple in which we regularly work, and which forms our own inner being. To see the invisible, one needs that important spiritual gift we each have: the gift of careful observation and reflection - which Goethe considered the true function of precise imagination.

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When writing the paper, I had with me the benefit of a variety of first degree tracing boards, but no books, being away for a few days by a stormy cliff facing the ocean. The select bibliography below forms, thus, not necessarily the works I have consulted in the process of preparing the presentation, but rather texts recalled and incorporated within the body of this paper.

The reader may be interested in a superb background paper located online by Bro. Mark S. Dwor titled ‘Some thoughts on the history of the Tracing Boards’, located online at:

Quite a variety of tracing boards are available for viewing online. As I have many of these and others whose bibliographical reference was unfortunately not noted, it is a disguised blessing at not being able to include here-with the various depictions I used in the spoken version. Nonetheless, I should mention that the Harris tracing board attached is available at

For the copy of the cover of the The Law and Constitutions of The Grand Lodge of the Ancient and Honourable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland, and its wonderful incorporation of not only a version of our tracing board, but also the obvious importance some of our predecessors placed on esoteric reflections (unfortunately derided by some of our own brethren in more recent times) I have to thank W. Bro. Les Bailey. A chance showing of this gift he received from another Freemason allowed me to request it be scanned - and have now been able to use and share it. The book was printed or prepared for lithography by Brother Schenck, Edinburgh, dated 1848.

Select Bibliography (in addition to the Ritual book, the New Jerusalem Bible, and the Tanakh):

Anonymous Meditations on the Tarot (1967) 1993
Goethe Metamorphosis of Plants (1863) 1993
Kaplan Sefer Yetzirah 1990
Plato Republic (c. 500 BC)
Barry, K. Greek Kabbalah 1999
Steiner, R. Temple Legend (1904-1906) 1985

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This paper was published in volume 18 of the Lodge of Research's Transactions. All members of the Lodge, including Correspondence members, receive copies of this annual publication. Earlier volumes of the Transactions are also available. Please contact the Correspondence Circle Secretary, Bro. G. Love.