The Paradox of the Cathedrals
Were They Simply Monuments to Faith or Something Else?
By Richard Cassaro
The cathedrals of Europe are still one of the most famous and well-known examples of architecture in the Western world. Built nearly a thousand years ago, these structures still stand as a testament to the skill of the ancient craftsmen: the Freemasons, a band of traveling stone craftsmen who joined together in the Middle Ages to build some of the finest structures of all time, monuments to Christianity and Catholicism, ordained by the popes.
That, at least, we are lead to believe, is the accepted history. It is entirely probable, however, that there is another ideology working beneath the surface, Christian symbology found on the cathedrals. The Masons, far from being pious believers in the orthodoxy of the medieval Catholic Church, were instead embedding the very stones themselves with an ancient wisdom that had long been passed down by pagan mystery cults since before the coming of Christ. Could the Masons, knowing this doctrine to be against official Church beliefs, have decided to hide their message in the stones, in case the Church should discover their secret?
The Church, it seems, did discover their secret, and around the 1700s began ruthlessly persecuting the Masons. The Masons, however, had already done their duty—they had enshrined their hidden wisdom in the very stones of the Catholic cathedrals— something that the Church either did not recognize or refused to recognize, lest they be forced to pull down all their cathedrals. The symbol that the Masons chose was a simple one—a triptych, a three-fold symbol on the facades of the cathedrals, that is key to their great secret.
With a group as shrouded in mystery as the Masons, there are bound to be centuries of misinformation and rumor about them. One thing that remains clear, however, is that they were, in fact, guarding a secret.
“It is always understood that the Freemasons have a secret which they carefully conceal,” wrote Thomas Paine.
Michael Howard wrote that, “It is generally believed in occult circles that medieval masons had inherited esoteric knowledge… and that this knowledge was incorporated into the sacred architecture of the cathedrals.”
The actuality of that secret still causes a significant amount of debate among Masonic scholars, some of whom believe it was an esoteric secret and some maintain it was an architectural secret. There is evidence to support both sides of the argument. In fact, there is evidence that those arguments are two sides of the same coin. Consider the sudden persecution of the Masons by the Catholic Church. “After the example of our predecessors,” declared Pope Leo I, “we intend to turn our attention to the Masonic society, to its whole doctrine and to its intentions, acts and feelings, in order to illustrate more and more this wicked force and to stop the spread of this contagious disease…”
This would seem to indicate that the Masons were heretics, possessors of some sort of religious doctrine that contradicted official Church canon. This is supported by a great many texts that have been gathered over the years regarding Masonic rituals, doctrine, and oral wisdom passed down from brother to brother. Tracing boards, sketches, chants, and other Masonic artifacts have come down to us from the ages. Though they can be mystifying at best, one thing about them is clear—they very often depict scenes or ideas that would run contrary to Catholic doctrine of the time.
Other scholars, however, refute the idea that esotericism was the great secret. They instead insist that the Masons were guarding architectural secrets, secrets that allowed them to maintain a near-monopoly on building until they fell out of favor with the pope. They look at the tracing boards and sketches as codes or encrypted documents, created by the fraternity, that explain their architectural secrets. They posit that by creating these symbols and characters, the Masons guarded their building techniques. No one without the key could accurately read the texts, and so they were safe, even if their documents fell into the hands of outsiders.
What both of these sides fail to realize, however, is that their arguments complement each other. By comparing Masonic-influenced architecture with pre-modern or classical architecture, it becomes increasingly plausible that the Masons used their architectural knowledge to embed esoteric knowledge in their art—a union of body and soul, as it were—a physical form that housed their philosophy, a marriage of their mastery of architecture and of spirit.
The symbols they used were myriad (and occasionally daringly overt, as with the labyrinth at Chartres), but the main symbol was the form in which they chose to carve their facades. The doors of the cathedrals are all arranged in a three-fold pattern, a pattern that links the cathedral facades to the facades of countless pagan buildings across the world. The Masons knew, or at least hoped, that other adherents would recognize the symbol and use it as an entrypoint for examining the rest of the cathedrals in an esoteric and critical light. The three-fold symbol is an integral symbol in the universal religion the Masons professed.
The most obvious rebuttal to this argument, of course, is that the cathedral facades are merely representative of the Trinity, the most holy symbol of Christianity. The three doors are indicative of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The doors, then, become a symbol easily placed into a normative Catholic context, embodying the religion that displays itself in everything from the stained-glass artwork to the immaculate crucifixes adorning the interior of the cathedrals.
It is a good question—but then, it has to be. If the Masons were to hide their secret knowledge in the facade of a holy site, they would need to hide it extremely well. Where better to hide that knowledge than in the facade of the church, under the guise of emulating Catholicism’s most holy symbol? The Masons knew that the Church elders would see the three-fold pattern and see the Trinity. The Masons, however, would know that the three-fold symbol was, in fact, truly representative of their own esoteric knowledge.
This theory, while compelling, is naturally problematic on a historic level. The most obvious problem with it is that it is simply more complicated than the alternative. The Masons built the cathedrals for the Church, who used the Trinity for their symbol. Occam’s Razor holds, then, that the Masons simply built the cathedral with Catholic symbolism in mind, and that any other reading of the symbols in the cathedrals is purely an artifice of the mind.
To believe that the triptych holds no meaning except on a surface level of Christianity, however, discards a great deal of evidence that we have that links Masonic buildings and esotericism, including the esoteric documents that we previously discussed, many of which include not only the three-fold symbol but also additional supporting documents that indicate that the three-fold symbol was not solely used by the Masons to indicate the Trinity.
Notable in the Masonic tracing boards and documents are the triptych pattern. It features prominently, often doubled with twin pillars and a central sun. Note them in cathedral facades, also doubling with the twin pillars and the central rose window.
Moreover, this same pattern has been reproduced by countless other civilizations across the world and across time. From Hindu buildings to Egyptian temples, we see this pattern appear time and time again.
The same pattern that graces pagan temples also graces Catholic cathedrals, suggesting that there is a deeper truth to the three-fold symbol on the cathedral facades beyond the surface interpretation of the triptych as representative of the Trinity—one that links back to a great secret of antiquity, lost now, but once known to the Masons, to the mystery cults, and to pagan religions across the world.
Anthropologists and archaeologists in mainstream academic research have long noted the similarity of buildings and symbols across disparate cultures. Unfortunately, due to the prevailing academic bias against theories that fall outside normative academic paradigms, Robert Schoch’s Sphinx research is a prime example of this, many academics have been unwilling to entertain theories that suggest a common origin or shared cultural exchange between cultures—Old World and New World in particular. As a result, they have dismissed these remarkable architectural similarities as convergent evolution and nothing more. The three-fold symbol, they argue, is simply convergent evolution—a simple symbol adopted by many cultures unrelated to each other and not indicative of any link or shared belief.
More than a few esoteric scholars have noted the problems with the theory of convergent evolution—specifically the fact that there are certain tribes that have simply not evolved beyond a primitive state. Additionally, there are several alternative theories of human diaspora that are rejected by mainstream scholars, but which would explain and support the idea that each of these cultures was descended from a prior culture that had a universal religion, and over time, that wisdom was dispersed, absorbed, and transformed into the world religions we know today.
It is in this way that the first mystery cults were created, and through the mystery cults, the secret of the universal religion survived through the three-fold symbol. It is well known that the Masons were influenced by, if not descended outright from, these mystery cults of old. It would not be a stretch of imagination to suggest that their great secret, so carefully guarded and preserved, was nothing less than the original key to the universal religion, kept secret and locked away for thousands of years by the mystery cults and entombed in the very stones of the buildings the Masons sought to create.
There is, unfortunately, no Rosetta Stone for the Masons’ great secrets. The Church was more or less successful in stamping out the real operative Masons in the nineteenth century. What remains of the Masons now is only a shell of its former self, a revived group that bears little resemblance to the secret and grand society that came before it. The secrets of the operative Masons, whatever they might have been, remain firmly locked away from the current ranks of the Masonic brotherhood.
And yet, there is tantalizing evidence pointing to the Masonic secret. Like other mysteries, it beckons to us with scraps of evidence here and there that lead us to a different conclusion. By piecing together these scraps of evidence, we find confirmation of a secret, both architectural and esoteric, of the brotherhood’s link with the mystery cults. The architectural similarities between the Old World and the new present a picture of something that is much deeper and possibly more complex than we have previously had reason to believe.
Is it possible that the Masonic secret is simply a ruse or wild goose chase? It is most certainly possible, and it’s possible that the triptych is merely a symbol of Christianity’s Trinity and nothing more. This view, however, only scratches the surface. Esotericism has always been about true meanings and what lies beneath the surface. Without study and reflection, one may never find what lies beneath. To stay at the surface means to ignore the breadth of evidence that suggests the Masons did, in fact, embed their secrets in the cathedral’s walls using their architectural knowledge and creating a link with other temples around the world that survives to this day.
Richard Cassaro is author of Written in Stone.