Telling Secrets: Masons at NMWA

Here at NMWA we’ve been quivering with excitement over the upcoming release of the new Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol! We’ve got mystery on the brain, and our feverishly enthused little minds are busy seeing secrets everywhere, especially here inside NMWA. Our overactive imaginations are not helped by the exhibitions we’ve been putting together for you, specifically Telling Secrets: Codes, Captions & Conundrums in Contemporary Art. Every piece in this show is chock-full of hidden meaning. You’ve already gotten a sneak peek at a few of the works that will be on display–I’m willing to bet that after taking a look, your brain was tingling with intrigue, too!

To make matters worse for us humble museum employees, the very building we work in is full of mystery! It was originally built as a Masonic Temple, and though it has since been thoroughly renovated, every effort was made to preserve historic detail. The most exciting of these details can be found on the outside of the building.

NMWA's cornerstone, laid by President Theodore Roosevelt.

NMWA's cornerstone, laid by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Click below for lots more images!

The building cornerstone (pictured above) was laid on June 8, 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt himself, with the same gavel and trowel George Washington used to lay the cornerstone of the Capitol Building in 1793. You can see the Masonic Square and Compasses, one of the most easily recognizable symbols of Freemasonry, clearly carved into the cornerstone. It also crowns many of the windows of the building, as you can see below.

The Masonic Square and Compasses atop a window.

The Masonic Square and Compasses atop a window.

As Freemasons are a rather secretive and esoteric lot, not much is widely known about their practices and the meaning of their symbols. The Masons themselves differ in their individual interpretations as there is no single official meaning attributed to the symbols.

Around the top of the building runs a band of alternating crests; your guess as to their meaning is as good as mine. Again, the Square and Compasses is featured, and you can also make out an assortment of crosses, eagles, flames and shields.

Crests line the face of the building.

Crests line the face of the building.

The number of X’s found in various motifs, and covering the windows in the picture above, intrigued us as well. Various leaves, flowers and fruits abound, both inside and outside of the building. It would take days to identify and interpret all of them. Pictured below is a Horn of Plenty, overflowing with vegetation, that runs up one of the walls in the Great Hall.

Bounteous!

Bounteous!

My favorite of the architectural details in the building are the lion’s head capitals on the columns of the Mezzanine. If you look closely, you can see that these are actually skinned lions, with their front paws hanging over the top of the capital and their hind paws tied and dangling on the bottom. It brings to mind the pelt of the Nemean Lion worn by the mythological hero, Hercules.

A fearsome lion!

A fearsome lion!

Another striking detail is the figure atop the arch of the Mezzanine. He looks quite fierce despite being surrounded by and abundance of floral detail.

What could the letters on his shield mean?

What could the letters on his shield mean?

At the corners of the same arch are slightly eerie female faces, keeping this fierce fellow company.

Surrounded by a vegetal halo.

Surrounded by a vegetal halo.

There is even a mosaic full of Masonic symbols hidden under the carpeting in some of the galleries. I’d post photos of that, too, but they wouldn’t let me pull up the carpeting even for you, faithful readers! (Believe me, I tried!) Is it any wonder, working in a building like this, that we are a little obsessed with mystery at the moment?

I hope this look into the Masonic Mysteries of NMWA has gotten you as intrigued as we are! We welcome comments! Tell us what you think of these all these interesting symbols hiding in plain sight on our museum walls, tell us anything you know about Freemasonry (believe me, we’re curious!), and even tell us how excited you are about the release of Dan Brown’s new book. We want to hear it all! Thanks for your time and attention, gentle readers; I’m off to go pick up my copy of The Lost Symbol! I leave you with this little gem:

Flavorful... mysterious... NMWA!

Flavorful... mysterious... NMWA!

About the Author: Brianna Benesh is NMWA’s Library and Research Center assistant and project coordinator for Clara: Database of Women Artists.

0 thoughts on “Telling Secrets: Masons at NMWA

  1. Wow what a beautiful building we need to take care of architecture like this Since the advent of industrialism Quantity not Quality has been revered. This has been reflected in diminished architectural expression and it’s craftsmanship It sad how we slap things together now expressionless boxes that will probably not survive a century due to cheap materials, basic labour and expediency.

    These buildings are works of art in themselves and deserve to be preserved

  2. I find it interesting that the National Museum of Women in the Arts is being housed in a building that was built for an organization exclusively for men.

  3. Brianna,

    I love this blog. Great work girl! I am so excited about the book and the Telling Secrets exhibit!

    Your code breaking LRC volunteer,

    Jessie

  4. Excellent teaser. I want to fly to D.C. today! Thanks to my copy of Women in the Arts, I found out about this blog. Keep up the good work.