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Chiswick House (1725-1729): a Masonic Temple in W. London?

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MessagePosté le: Lun 24 Nov - 06:36 (2008)    Sujet du message: Chiswick House (1725-1729): a Masonic Temple in W. London? Répondre en citant

Chiswick House, built for Lord Burlington in the early eighteenth century: A Masonic Temple in West London?
By Matthew Scanlan, August 2006
Issue 39, Winter 2006, Freemasonry Today
Grand Lodge Publications Ltd 1997-2008…
(More images here:

In the leafy suburbs of west London stands one of England’s finest architectural edifices, Chiswick House. It is a beautifully proportioned Italianate villa executed in the style of the late-renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio. Built during the second-half of the 1720s by the Anglo-Irish peer, Lord Burlington, it is an enigma.

Most commentators consider it too small to have been designed as a place of residence and yet, curiously, there is no record of Lord Burlington having used it as a place of entertainment either. Consequently many researchers have tended to view the house as little more than an eccentric folly, the work of a rich nobleman who indulged his passion for architecture. However, in recent years an alternative view has come to the fore, one that links Chiswick House with the secretive world of eighteenth-century Freemasonry.

Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork (1694-1753) succeeded his father in 1704 and inherited vast estates in both England and Ireland. He was a relative of Robert Boyle - a founding fellow of the Royal Society and the recognised father of modern chemistry. Burlington owned several houses, including a major seat in Yorkshire and another in London’s fashionable Piccadilly - now home to a number of societies including The Royal Academy of Arts and the Society of Antiquaries. But it was at his suburban estate in Chiswick that Burlington was to make his boldest architectural statement. For here, within rambling distance of the Thames, Burlingon constructed a house in which symbolism constituted an integral part of the design.

Burlington’s initial interests seem to have been in art and music. However, a series of European tours undertaken during his twenties left Burlington with a life-long passion for architecture and on his return to England he became a generous patron to many artists. Indeed, such was his prominence in this field, that Horace Walpole was later moved to describe him as ‘the Apollo of the arts’.

Burlington began alterations to his Chiswick estate as early as 1717, although work on the new villa took place between 1725 and 1729. This villa measures 70 x 70 x 35 feet - a perfect double cube - and the whole edifice is constructed on two levels, with the main rooms situated on the upper or first floor. To gain access to these upper rooms, the modern-day visitor is obliged to pass through what was once his library, before ascending a winding staircase comprising fifteen steps. And here it has been suggested that there are parallels between the three, five and seven steps of Masonic lore, which led to the inner chamber of King Solomon’s Temple.

The Masonic Rooms

There are eight first-floor rooms at Chiswick House and all are symbolically proportioned. At the front of the villa is a red velvet closet room (now closed to visitors) measuring 10 x 10 x 10 feet - an exact cube - which symbolises the squaring of the circle or perfection.

Adjoining this space is a slightly larger similarly proportioned room measuring 15 x 15 x 15 feet. This latter room is decorated in a rich blue colour and it is here that the iconography of the house begins to exude a distinctly masonic hue. For on the ornate ceiling above is a painting executed by the celebrated designer, William Kent, and at its centre is a caryatid-type figure – a seated goddess with a Corinthian column-head surmounting her crown. In her right hand she holds a pair of compasses while in her left she supports the plan of an unidentified building or temple. She is surrounded by three cherubs: to her left, one holds aloft a large Tsquare and is dressed in blue sash, while to her right, another sits brandishing a builder’s square. However, it is the third cherub who is perhaps the most suggestive: in his right hand he not only dangles a plumb-line, but he also holds the forefinger of his left hand to his lips, clearly indicating silence.

Moving out of this space, one enters a slightly larger room entirely decorated in red velvet. This room is almost completely dominated by another large ceiling painting known as ‘Mercury and the arts’. This is once again a work of William Kent and it depicts an arch supported by two pillars. Suspended above the arch is the Roman god Mercury (Hermes) who gazes downwards at three seated female figures; one unveils a self-portrait of the artist; another brandishes a builder’s square; and an accompanying cherub also holds the ground plan of the Roman Temple of Fortuna Virilis, after Palladio.

However, it is the imagery immediately below this group that proves the most interesting from a masonic perspective. For at the base of the picture is a ghostlike figure - a cadaver lying prostrate in a tomb; at his head are two discarded chisels and a builder’s maul.

As Chiswick House’s enthusiastic guide, Ricky Pound, points out, such imagery is more than a little redolent of the central mythos of masonic ritual – the story of the murder of King Solomon’s master builder, Hiram Abiff who, according to this legend, was slain with a builder’s maul. Furthermore, Kent’s inclusion of Mercury is also highly suggestive. For in Roman mythology, Mercury was inexorably bound up with the mysteries and, as messenger of the gods, he was the interlocutor between the world of the living and of the dead. It was Mercury who was sent by Jupiter, the supreme deity, to rescue Proserpina (Persephone in Greece) from the Underworld and escort her back to the land of the living. And because of his archetypal nature, Mercury had his coequals in many cultures – Thoth in ancient Egypt, Hermes in ancient Greece, Enoch in the Old Testament, Idris in the Koran, and in the traditions surrounding the two Saints John in Christianity.

Ordinarily, one might be tempted to dismiss such a neat arrangement of symbols as probable coincidence, were it not for the dating of this image. For it is known that William Kent executed this painting in 1729, just as the Hiramic legend is known to have been emerging. It was also painted little more than a year before Samuel Prichard first exposed the Hiramic tale in his pamphlet, Masonry Dissected. And there is more.

According to the art historian Barry Martin, the zodiacal arrangement of Kent’s ceiling painting discreetly maps out the 47th proposition of Euclid, which, as every English Freemason knows, is of pivotal importance if one wants to gain a deeper understanding of the masonic mysteries. In simple terms it denotes a square, a square consisting of the proportions of 3:4:5. Not only was this shape of huge importance to builders throughout the centuries. but its symbolic importance to modern Freemasonry is also emphasised by its presence in the frontispiece of Anderson’s 1723 Constitutions. Its importance at Chiswick is also detectable in the dimensions of the red room itself, as it measures 15 x 20 x 25 feet – the proportions of 3:4:5. These symbolic proportions are also repeated in all the door frames of the villa.

Was Lord Burlington a Freemason?

When one examines such a rich array of symbolism - and there is much more to Chiswick House and its gardens - one question seems to be most pressing: was Lord Burlington a Freemason? His name does not appear on the lodge lists of 1723, 1725 and 1731. Nevertheless, these early lists are by no means definitive; on the contrary they are rather fragmentary and they do not attempt to list the members of those lodges that fell outside the jurisdiction or control of the Premier Grand Lodge in London.

In addition, there is a sizeable corpus of evidence, albeit somewhat circumstantial, which does suggest that Lord Burlington was a mason. In Anderson’s 1723 Constitutions is ‘The Fellowcraft’s Song’ written by Brother Charles Delafaye, verse six of which reads:

Then in our Songs be Justice done
To those who have enrich’d the Art,
From Jabal down to BURLINGTON,
And let each Brother bear a Part.

The fact that Delafaye openly acknowledged Burlington as a ‘Brother’ is significant: Charles Delafaye was not only MP for Westminster and an undersecretary of State for the northern department, but throughout much of the reign of George I he was trusted with managing the press on behalf of the government. Another of his responsibilities was to act as secretary to the Lords Justices of England during the king’s absence and he was also subsequently involved in the sensitive task of harvesting intelligence. As a Freemason, Delafaye belonged to the prestigious Horn Tavern Lodge in Westminster and he was on personal terms with most, if not all, the Grand Lodge nomenclature. Therefore, if anyone knew of Lord Burlington’s Masonic association, it would have been Charles Delafaye.

Similarly, Burlington was also on intimate terms with several well-known Freemasons of the day, figures such as the writer, Alexander Pope, the architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and the former Grand Master, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1721-22). Several leading masons also commissioned him to carry out a series of architectural projects, including the 2nd Duke of Grafton, 2nd Duke of Richmond (1724-25) - a former Grand Master - and Lord Lovell (later Earl of Leicester), who was installed as Grand Master in March 1731. And most recently it was also discovered that one of Burlington’s draughtsmen, Samuell Savill, belonged to the Lodge that met at the Cock and Bottle in London’s Little Britain. Yet, for all the symbolism and Burlington’s many masonic acquaintances, the question of his own association, regrettably remains somewhat mysterious. But perhaps some forgotten document will yet emerge to enlighten us.

I would like to thank Ricky Pound and English Heritage for their kind assistance in the preparation of this article. Chiswick House is open from Wednesday to Sunday 10am - 5pm, and Saturday 10am – 2pm (April to end of October). All photographs courtesy of English Heritage.

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