Part 14: Lost in Translation
There are few Scottish Rite scenes that were solely designed for Masonic degree productions. Most stage settings that were used by the Fraternity originated for other venues. Many compositions had been used for centuries in a variety of theatrical and operatic productions. Palatial interiors, cathedrals, catacombs, dungeons, classical interiors, mausoleums, Egyptian temples, dessert scenes, forests, rivers, landscapes, gothic armories, rocky coasts, and garden scenes were all used for both commercial and fraternal productions.
The “Peristyle” scene for the eighteenth degree, however, was unique. It would become a common setting in many Southern Jurisdiction Scottish Rite theaters during the first decade of the twentieth century. This scene used a translucent lighting effect. The words “Infinity,” “Nature,” “Reason,” and “Immortality” were typically placed at the tops of columns. The first letter of each word (I.N.R.I.) was backed with red silk, allowing it to glow. Thomas Moses’ 1924 design and painting for this Fort Scott scene placed the words at the base of each column – something new and unusual. Four corresponding light boxes with backlit words appeared at the appropriate time.
(Fort Scott, KS)
I am frequently asked questions about the subject matter and necessary symbolism in degree productions, especially for the 18th degree. And thus I find myself working as a “Masonic Outreach Specialist,” promoting the benefits of Freemasonry to society. When approached by theatre technicians, however, there is the additional question concerning the design process. How did the artist’s know what to paint? How did the masons ensure appropriate symbolism on each backdrop without revealing any secrets?
My standard response includes a discussion on the appearance of theatrical manufacturers who became Masons. Scenic studio owners, regalia suppliers, and publishers greatly profited from Masonic membership and their fraternal relationships. These are the individuals who directed how the degrees would be staged and the appropriate costumes and props for each production.
Was profit their sole reason for becoming a Mason? I like to believe that their motivation for joining the fraternity wasn’t profit, but this association was a lucrative endeavor.
Did all of the scenic artists understand what they were painting on drops? Absolutely not, and the pelican in the 18th degree is a perfect example. Not even Moses in 1924 (the year before he joined the fraternity and became an active member at the Scottish Rite in Pasadena, California) understood the symbolism of the pelican.
(Fort Scott, KS Pelican)
The pelican is an integral part of the Peristyle composition, either appearing as a painting on the backdrop, painting on a cut drop, or included as a set prop. Sometimes the set prop was even illuminated as a large light box.
The symbolism of the pelican is sacrifice; piercing its breast to feed its young. This image was also found in many churches, often as a stained glass subject.
(Yankton, SD Pelican)
In Fort Scott and many other Valleys, however, the pelican holds a worm in its beak. Salina, Kansas, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Winona, Minnesota are just a few examples of painted scenery where the pelican does not pierce its breast.
(Winona, MN Pelican)
(St. Paul, MN Pelican)
(Salina, KS Pelican)
How was this detail lost in translation? Lack of information.
The design failed to show the detail of blood, so the artist just improvised.
To be continued…
(Sosman and Landis Design – Holak Collection (PA49) University of Minnesota, Libraries)
Fort Scott, Kansas. Details of the Peristyle Scene below: