Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 14 – Lost in Translation

While Wendy Waszut-Barrett is traveling for research and art acquisitions (October 14-29, 2017) she is reposting the first fifteen installments from “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar Acquiring: The Fort Scott Scenery for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center.” Here is her fourteenth post from February 27, 2017.
 
For additional installments, visit www.drypigment.net
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 “INRI Peristyle” scene for the eighteenth degree, however, was unique. It would become a standard 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.
18th degree setting designed by Thomas G. Moses for the Scottish Rite in Fort Scott, Kansas (1924). Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2015.
Same 18th degree setting created for Tucson, Arizona. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2017.
18th degree setting by Sosman & Landis Studio for Winona, Minnesota. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2010.
The first letter of each word (I.N.R.I.) was backed with red silk, allowing it to glow. Thomas Moses’ design and painting for this Fort Scott scene placed the words at the base of each column – something new. Four corresponding light boxes with backlit words appeared at the appropriate time.
 
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 artists 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 individuals 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.
1931 design for the 18th degree by Thomas G. Moses. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
Pelican detail in 1931 design by Thomas G. Moses. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2016.
 
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 this 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 in a stained glass design.
 
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 where a pelican does not pierce its breast. How was this symbolic detail lost in translation?
Painted detail on 18th degree cut drop for Winona, Minnesota. Photograph by Wendy Waszut-Barrett, 2010.
The design failed to show the detail of blood, so the artist just improvised.
Painted detail on 18th degree backdrop for the Scottish Rite in Yankton, South Dakota.
 
To be continued…

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