Concealment and Revelation: Masonic Symbolism and the Maine Painted Tall-Case Clock

By Gordon Wilkins
Curatorial Intern

This is a preview of a larger project that Gordon is working on for the Summer Farnsworth Art Museum magazine.
“In a symbol there is concealment, and yet revelation here, therefore by Silence and by Speech, acting together, comes a double significance. And if both the Speech be itself high, and the Silence fit and noble, how expressive with their union be. Thus in many a painted Device, a simple Seal-emblem, the commonest Truth stands out to us proclaimed with quite new emphasis.” –Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
This circa 1810 tall-case clock with wooden works by noted nineteenth century clockmaker Riley Whiting of Winchester, Connecticut and smoke painted case by an unknown Maine artisan is a true tour de force of New England craftsmanship and a significant asset to the collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum. At first glance there is something rather aesthetically unsettling about this work, due in large part to its unconventional juxtaposition of the traditional with the innovative, the unusual. The collocation of the staid, stereotypical grandfather clock shape, with its stout base, elongated cabinet, and gracefully bowed top, with the expressionistic, Jackson Pollock-esque finish of gestural globs of blackened paint challenges the viewer’s conception of the visual identity of grandfather clocks and more broadly, American decorative arts of the era. Though the painted wood exterior of the clock appears startlingly modern for the 19th century, the method of painting utilized by this unknown Maine craftsman, known as smoke painting, was a fairly conventional technique during the time. By passing a lit candle over the surface of a wet, milk-based paint, the craftsman was able to create this stunning play of shadow and light.
This study in contrasts extends to the ornately painted face of this clock, which on first glance appears to be a purely decorative muddle of flowers and gold accented with an arch yet is, in fact, a profound statement on the morals and virtues espoused by the followers of Freemasonry, “an oath-bound fraternal and benevolent association of men whose purpose is to nurture sound moral and social virtues among its members and all of mankind.” In order to promulgate their message of brotherly love and the importance of good character, Freemasons utilize the simple tools of the ancient stonemason as well as symbols appropriated from nature as teaching devices. When these concealed symbols are revealed one can go beyond the aesthetic beauty of the piece to understand the profoundly didactic nature of this clock, with each symbol preaching brotherly love, industry, virtue, and the power of the “Supreme Being.”
Clock Symbols:
  • Arch- Symbol of the “arch of heaven” and Royal Arch Masonry, a term used to denote the first part of the York Rite system of Masonic degrees.
  •  The Sun and the Moon- Symbols of duality, of night and day, of good and evil.
  •  Three Candle Sticks- Three candles represent the three Lesser Lights of the Lodge, symbolizing the sun, moon, and the Worshipful Master of the Lodge.
  •  Checkered Pavement- Symbol of the good and the evil in life.
  •  Ladder- Jacob’s ladder or the theological ladder of Faith, Hope, and Charity.
  •  Steps- Symbolize advancement in Masonic knowledge. Three steps symbolize the three stages of human life: youth, manhood, and age, as well as the first three degrees of Masonry.
  • Beehive- A symbol of industry, meant to evoke the tireless labor of a bee. 
  •  Gavel- The hammer used to break off rough edges of stone symbolizes divesting the heart of vice.
  •  Key- Symbolizes silence and secrecy.
  •  Square and Compass- Symbolizes reason and faith.
  •  Seven Stars- Seven stars symbolize the number needed to make a perfect lodge. Five-pointed star symbolic of the five points of fellowship.
  •  Scythe Pointing to a Naked Heart- The scythe is a symbol used commonly in Ireland as a rather morbid emblem of time, a memento mori that tells its viewers that life is fleeting. Alongside a heart the scythe illustrates that “justice will sooner or later overtake us.”
For More Information:
W. Kirk MacNulty, Freemasonry: Symbols, Secrets, Significance. New York: Thames & Hudson
            Inc., 2006.
Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, Inc., Masonic Symbols in American Decorative
            Arts. Lexington: Museum of Our National History, 1975.