|THE BROKEN COLUMN
Short Talk Bulletin -
Vol. 34, February 1956,
No. 2 - Author Unknown
The story of the broken column was first illustrated by Amos Doolittle
in the "true Masonic Chart" by Jeremy Cross, published in 1819.
Many of Freemasonry's symbols are of extreme
antiquity and deserve the reverence which we give to that which has had sufficient
vitality to live long in the minds of men. For instance, the square, the point within a
circle, the apron, circumambulation, the Altar have been used not only in Freemasonry but
in systems of ethics, philosophy and religions without number.
Other symbols in the Masonic system are more recent. Perhaps they are not the less
important for that, even without the sanctity of age which surrounds many others.
Among the newer symbols is that usually
referred to as the broken column. A marble monument is respectably ancient -
column seems a more recent addition. There seems to be no doubt that the first pictured
broken column appeared in Jeremy Cross's True Masonic Chart, published in 1819, and that
the illustration was the work of Amos Doolittle, an engraver, of Connecticut.
That Jeremy Cross "invented" or "designed" the emblem is open to
argument. But there is legitimate room for argument over many inventions. Who invented
printing from movable type? We give the credit to Gutenberg, but there are other
claimants, among them the Chinese at an earlier date. Who invented the airplane? The
Wrights first flew a "mechanical bird" but a thousand inventors have added to,
altered, changed their original design, until the very principle which first enabled the
Wrights to fly, the "warping wing", is now discarded and never used.
Therefore, if authorities argue and contend
about the marble monument and broken column it is not to make objection or take credit
from Jeremy Cross; the thought is that almost any invention or discovery is improved,
changed, added to and perfected by many men. Edison is credited with the first
incandescent lamp, but there is small kinship between his carbon filament and a modern
tungsten filament bulb. Roentgen was first to bring the "x-ray" to public
notice-the discoverer would not know what a modern physician's x-ray apparatus was if he
In the library of the Grand Lodge of Iowa in
Cedar Rapids, is a book published in 1784; "A BRIEF HISTORY OF FREEMASONRY" by
Thomas Johnson, at that time the Tiler of the Grand Lodge of England (the
"Moderns"). In this book the author states that he was "taken the liberty
to introduce a Design for a Monument in Honor of a Great Artist." He then admits that
there is no historical account of any such memorial but cites many precedents of
"sumptuous Piles" which perpetuate the memories and preserve the merits of the
historic dead, although such may have been buried in lands far from the monument or
"perhaps in the depth of the Sea".
In this somewhat fanciful and poetic
description of this monument, the author mentions an urn, a laurel branch, a sun, a moon,
a Bible, square and compasses, letter G. The book was first published in 1782, which seems
proof that there was
at that time at least the idea of a monument erected to the Master Builder.
There is little historical material upon which to draw to form any accurate conclusions.
Men write of what has happened long after the happenings. Even when faithful to their
memories, these may be, and often are, inaccurate. It is with this thought in mind that a
curious statement in the Masonic newspaper, published in New York seventy-five years ago, must
be considered. In the issue of May 10, 1879, a Robert B. Folger purports to give Cross'
account of his invention, or discovery, an inclusion, of the broken column into the marble
The account is long, rambling and at times not
too clear. Abstracted, the salient parts are as follows. Cross found or sensed what he
considered a deficiency in the Third Degree which had to be filled in order to effect his
purposes. He consulted a former Mayor of New Haven, who at the time was one of his most
intimate friends. Even after working together for a week, they did not hit upon any symbol
which would be sufficiently simple and yet answer the purpose. Then a Copper-plate
engraver, also a brother, was called in. The number of hieroglyphics which had be this
time accumulated was immense. Some were too large, some too small, some too complicated,
requiring too much explanation and many were not adapted to the subject.
Finally, the copper-plate engraver said, "Brother Cross, when
great men die, they generally have a monument." "That's right!" cried
Cross; "I never thought of that!" He visited the burying-ground in New
Haven. At last he got an idea and told his friends that he had the foundation of what he
wanted. He said that while in New York City he had seen a monument in the southwest corner
of Trinity Church yard erected over Commodore Lawrence, a great man who fell in battle. It
was a large marble pillar, broken off. The broken part had been taken away, but the
capital was lying at the base. He wanted that pillar for the foundation of his new emblem,
but intended to bring in the other part, leaving it resting against the base. This his
friends assented to, but more was wanted. They felt that some inscription should be on the
column. after a length discussion they decided upon an open book to be placed upon the
broken pillar. There should of course be some reader of the book! Hence
the emblem of innocence-a beautiful virgin-who should weep over the memory of the deceased
while she read of his heroic deeds from the book before her.
The monument erected to the memory of Commodore Lawrence was placed in the southwest
corner of Trinity Churchyard in 1813, after the fight between the frigates
Chesapeake and Shannon, in which battle Lawrence fell. As described, it was a beautiful
marble pillar, broken off, with a part of the capital laid at its base. lt remained
until 1844-5 at which time Trinity Church was rebuilt. When finished, the corporation of
the Church took away the old and dilapidated Lawrence monument and erected a new one in a
different form, placing it in the front of the yard on Broadway, at the lower entrance of
the Church. When Cross visited the new monument, he expressed great disappointment at the
change, saying "it was not half as good as the one they took away!"
These claims of Cross-perhaps made for Cross-to having originated the emblem are disputed.
Oliver speaks of a monument but fails to assign an American origin. In the Barney ritual
of 1817, formerly in the possession of Samuel Wilson of Vermont, there is the marble
column, the beautiful virgin weeping, the open book, the sprig of acacia, the urn, and
Time standing behind. What is here lacking is the broken column. Thus it appears that the
present emblem, except the broken column, was in use prior to the publication of Cross'
The emblem in somewhat different form is frequently found in ancient
symbolism. Mackey states that with the Jews a column was often used to symbolize princes,
rulers or nobles. A broken column denoted that a pillar of the state had
fallen. In Egyptian mythology, Isis is sometimes pictured weeping over the
broken column which conceals the body of her husband Osiris, while behind her stands Horus
or Time pouring ambrosia on her hair. In Hasting's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF RELIGION AND ETHICS,
Isis is said sometimes to be represented standing; in her right hand is a sistrum, in her
left hand a small ewer and on her forehead is a lotus, emblem of resurrection. In the
Dionysaic Mysteries, Dionysius is represented as slain; Rhea goes in search of the body.
She finds it and causes it to be buried. She is sometimes represented as standing by a
column holding in her hand a sprig of wheat, emblem of immortality; since, though it be
placed in the ground and die, it springs up again into newness of life. She was the wife
of Kronus or Time, who may fittingly be represented as standing behind her.
Whoever invented the emblem or symbol of the marble monument, the broken column, the
beautiful virgin, the book, the urn, the acacia, Father Time counting the ringlets of
hair, could not have thought through all the implications of this attempt-doubtless made
in all reverence-to add to the dignity and impressiveness of the story of the Master
The urn in which "ashes were safely deposited" is pure invention. Cremation was
not practiced by the Twelve Tribes; it was not the method of disposing of the dead in the
land and at the time of the building of the Temple. rather was the burning of the dead
body reserved as a dreadful fate for the corpses of criminals and evil doers. That so
great a man as "the widow's son, of the tribe of Naphtali" should have been
cremated is unthinkable. The Bible is silent on the subject; it does not mention Hiram the
Builder's death, still less the disposal of the body, but the whole tone of the Old
Testament in description of funerals and mournings, make it impossible to believe that his
body was burned, or that his ashes might have been preserved.
The Israelites did not embalm their dead; burial was accomplished on the day of death or,
at the longest wait, on the day following. According to the legend, the Master Builder was
disinterred from the first or temporary grave and reinterred with honor. That is indeed, a
supposable happening; that his body was raised only to be cremated is wholly out of
keeping with everything known of deaths, funeral ceremonies, disposal of the dead of the
In the ritual which describes the broken column monument, before the figure of the virgin
is "a book, open before her." Here again invention and knowledge did not go hand
in hand. There were no books at the time of the building of the Temple, as moderns
understand the word. there were rolls of skins, but a bound book of leaves made of any
substance-vellum, papyrus, skins-was an unknown object. Therefore there could have been no
such volume in which the virtues of the Master Builder were recorded.
No logical reason has been advanced why the woman who mourned and read in the book was a
"beautiful virgin." No scriptural account tells of the Master Builder having
wife or daughter or any female relative except his mother. The Israelites reverenced
womanhood and appreciated virginity, but they were just as reverent over mother and
child. Indeed, the bearing of children, the increase of the tribe, the desire for sons,
was strong in the Twelve Tribes; why, then, the accent upon the virginity of the woman in
the monument? "Time standing behind her, unfolding and counting the ringlets of her
hair" is dramatic, but also out of character for the times. "Father Time"
with his scythe is probably a descendant of the Greek Chromos, who carried a sickle or
reaping hook, but the Israelites had no contact with Greece. It may have been natural for
whoever invented the marble monument emblem to conclude that Time was both a world-wide
and a time immemorial symbolic figure, but it could not have been so at the era in which
Solomon's Temple was built.
It evidently did not occur to the originators of
this emblem that it was historically impossible. Yet the Israelites did not erect
monuments to their dead. In the singular, the word "monument" does not occur in
the Bible; as "monuments" it is mentioned once, in Isaiah 65 - "A
people...which remain among the graves and lodge in the monuments." In the Revised
Version this is translated "who sit in tombs and spend the night in secret
places." The emphasis is apparently upon some form of worship of the dead
(necromancy). The Standard Bible Dictionary says that the word "monument" in the
general sense of a simple memorial does not appear in Biblical usage.
Oliver Day Street in "SYMBOLISM OF THE
THREE DEGREES" says that the urn was an ancient sign of mourning, carried in funeral
processions to catch the tears of those who grieved. But the word "urn" does not
occur in the Old Testament nor the New.
Freemasonry is old. It came to
us as a slow, gradual evolution of the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, teachings, idealism of
many men through many years. It tells a simple story-a story profound in its meaning,
which therefore must be simple, as all great truths in the last analysis are simple.
The marble monument and the broken column have many parts. Many of these have the aroma of
age. Their weaving together into one symbol may be-probably is-a modernism, if that term
can cover a period of nearly two hundred years. but the importance of a great life, his
skill and knowledge; his untimely and pitiful death is not a modernism.
Nothing herein set forth is intended as in any
way belittling one of Freemasonry's teachings by means of ritual and picture. These few
pages are but one of many ways of trying to illuminate the truth behind a symbol, and show
that, regardless of the dates of any parts of the emblem, the whole has a place in the
Masonic story which has at least romance, if not too much fact, behind it.