The Lambskin Apron
It was "Lambskin Apron Night" at the Lodge. The brethren excitedly unfurled their precious possessions, some for the first time since being raised as Master Masons, tied them around their waists and wore them with pride. Some of our older brethren were rather reluctant to participate, because they mistakenly remembered being told that 'the next use of the lambskin apron would be when buried with you in the grave.' However, they were reassured when a quick review of our ritual and the current edition of the California Masonic Code revealed no such admonition!
What is the value and importance of this Lambskin Apron and why does it excite such emotions? An interesting poem, written in 1917 by Brother D. L. Clements gives us some insight.
The white leather apron is more ancient by far
Than the eagles of Rome, a symbol of war,
Or the fleece of pure gold by emperors given,
A rich decoration for which many have striven.
The Garter of England, an Order most rare,
Although highly prized, cannot with it compare;
It is an emblem of innocence symboled in white,
And purity ever brings the greatest delight;
With pure thoughts and actions how happy the life
How care-free the conscience, unclouded by strife.
No Potentate ever can upon us bestow
An honor so great as this apron doth show;
No king on his throne in his highest estate
Can give us an emblem so cherished or great;
'Tis the Badge of a Mason more noble to wear
Than the gold of a mine or the diamond most rare.
So here's to the lambskin the apron of white,
That lifts up all equals and all doth unite,
In the Order so ancient that man cannot say
When its teachings began or name its birthday.
Since its birth, nations young have gone to their tomb
And cities once great turned to ashes and gloom;
Earth's greatest achievements have long passed away
And peoples have risen and gone to decay.
Outliving all these never changing with time
Are the principles taught in our order sublime.
And now my good brother this apron's for you,
May you worthily wear it and ever he true
To the vows you have made to the lessons most grand
For these, home and country, we ever will stand.
The apron is the initial gift of Freemasonry to a candidate. The word derives from the French "napron," meaning a cloth, and from the expression "a napron" evolved "an apron" in English. The candidate is instructed to wear this distinctive badge throughout an honorable Masonic life. As we will see, the presentation or Rite of Investiture symbolizes the candidate's new life of understanding and inner purification.
Our speculative use of the apron derives from both historical and operative sources. From the historical perspective, we learn about initiatory and religious functions. The initiate into ancient Orders traveled a so-called Rite of Passage, whereby he symbolically matured from the naivete or spiritual darkness of the child to "enlightenment" as an adult. He became "cleansed of impurities" of both the mind and spirit.
This "redemption" or "regeneration" afforded his placement into a milieu of special human fellowship, moral truth and spiritual faith. White aprons were worn upon initiation into the ancient mysteries of Mithras, the Jewish cult of the Essenes and Chinese secret societies. They were worn by ancient Jewish and Druidic high priests. The early Christians wore them when baptized. The Persians used it as a national banner. It adorned Greek and Egyptians gods. It was used by the Mayans, Incas, Aztecs and Hopi Indians, the Vikings, the Zulus and by the Anglican clergy. Because men wore them as emblems of their high office or position, the apron acquired an aura of authority and respect in many diverse cultures. From the religious or mystical standpoint, the white apron was regarded as a sign of purity. It covered the lower portion of the body, which was associated with uncleanness and immorality. The sash or band used to tie the apron separated the upper and lower parts, and when worn at prayer, reminded one of the functional priority of heart and mind.
The "mystics" spoke of the four physical (earth, air, fire and water) and three spiritual (presence, knowledge and power: symbolic of Deity), which add up to the Pythagorean "perfect" number seven. Masons have similarly speculated about the symbolic perfection of the seven sides of the apron and its flap. When worn by an entered apprentice, the "physical" four-sided main portion is separate from the "spiritual" three-sided flap. As this new Mason progresses through the degrees and becomes "enlightened," the flap descends to the apron, symbolizing entrance of his spiritual nature into that of the physical. Then the corner turns up, symbolizing an intertwining embrace of the two aspects. Another esoteric explanation considers the pentagram, square and triangle. If we trace the outlines of the apron for each degree, the entered apprentice's has five sides, the fellowcraft's, four sides and the master's, three sides (the latter form is now obsolete). In this we can find a recurring theme in Masonry, the 47th Problem of Euclid. Discovered by Pythagoras, it teaches that in right-angled triangles, the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the two other sides. This is the root of geometry and foundation of mathematics, which was essential knowledge for our Masonic cathedral builders.
From the operative perspective, the apron, no doubt, had its development for practical reasons and became necessary equipment for the medieval stonemasons. The apprentice was a bearer of burdens, carrying ashlars and timbers against his body. He needed a large apron, usually made of a tough animal hide, to protect him from physical injury and his clothes from damage and soiling. The fellowcraft was a hewer in the mountains and quarries and required the apron to deflect lime chips and stone dust. The master, as overseer of the work, wore his apron with the corner turned up, as a mark of his special authority. The apron and other clothing, such as cap, collar and gloves, developed into uniforms which distinguished members of one guild from another. The mason's apron became his specific badge!
It was in the 17th century when the building of massive edifices slowed and membership in the guilds declined that the seeds of modern Speculative Masonry were sown. Our founding fathers recognized the importance of incorporating the wisdom and experience of both the historical and operative perspectives into a new moral system that would attract the interest of men whose vocations were not in the operative craft. On this basis, how was the apron treated? Let us look to the description in our ritual.
LAMBSKIN. The lamb is gentle and harmless. In ancient times it was often offered as a sacrifice to the gods, either to please them or as a symbolic plea for the expiation of sins. The lamb is therefore associated with redemption and purification. The lamb's white color is an ancient symbol of purity and cleanliness, of innocence, conscience, good character and discipline. It is the color that reflects the most light, speculatively the "light of understanding." Alternately, it shows stains most plainly, so we must beware if committing misdeeds and acts of immortality.
The origin of the word "candidate" is from the Latin, "candidus" meaning white. Candidates for office in ancient Rome often wore white togas to proclaim their qualities. Today, we use the word "candid" to mean free from prejudice or deception, fair, or an honest and sincere expression.
EMBLEM OF INNOCENCE. First let us examine the difference between symbol and emblem. A symbol is an idea, sign, device or object which has within itself something else, which it guards from false scrutiny, but which it may yield, if studied. "Virtues" are symbols, for example. An emblem is a symbolic device whose meaning need not be discovered. Its meaning is obvious, known and accepted by common agreement. For example, "white means purity."
Innocence originally meant "not to hurt," but in modern times it has come to mean "lack of the knowledge of evil." And so the "innocent girl," the virgin, is symbolically married in a white dress. Masonry teaches us that as adults we cannot ignore evil and we use the word in its original context, "to do no hurt," to be harmless, gentle, moral, patient, forgiving and having forbearance with men's crudeness and ignorance.
BADGE OF A MASON. The badge differs from the symbol or emblem, in that it is a conscious mark or sign by which a person (or object) is distinguished, making his identity or membership known. The apron is a sign to prove rough work, either that physical labor or the Operative or the spiritual work of the Speculative Mason. Historically, this badge helped to elevate Masonry's status to that of a worthy and honorable profession, one of creating and constructing. It did much to change societal attitudes toward labor, which was no longer thought relegated to slaves or menials. As the badge of Masons, the apron also represents their "bond of friendship."
Since our Speculative history began in 1717, the lambskin has undergone many changes in size, shape, length and fabric. We presently use an unspotted lambskin 14"-16" wide, 12"-14" long, with the flap apex extending 3"-4" from the top. It is properly worn in full view, outside the jacket or coat. Ornaments, edgings, rosettes and tassels of varying design and color are used for Grand Lodge and Blue Lodge officers, past masters, and by the concordant and appendant Masonic orders. While it is not within the scope of this essay to describe and discuss these differences, this information can be obtained from several of the reference papers. [Information in the above paragraph pertains to Masons who are members of the Grand Lodge of California. Variations may exit in other Jurisdictions.]
MORE ANCIENT THAN THE GOLDEN FLEECE OR ROMAN EAGLE. The Order of the Golden Fleece was founded in 1429 by Phillip, the Duke of Burgundy, upon his marriage to the Infanta Isabella of Portugal. The "Golden Ram" was its badge and alluded to the lost Greek mythologic object sought by Jason and the Argonauts. It was the symbol of the triumph of superior spiritual strength and purity of the soul. In contrast to Masonry, this Order's motto was "wealth, not servile labor." Its original purpose was to protect the Church and Catholic faith, but later extended to other faiths. It still exists and interestingly, in 1985 King Carlos of Spain, conferred the Order on a Moslem, King Hussein of Jordan.
The Roman Eagle was the ensign of Rome's Imperial power, around the 1st century B.C., during the second consulship of Gaius Marius. It exalted the glory and greatness of the past. It fostered a belief that the wisdom gained by experience was the basis of progress and secured our present and future happiness. It was thus a source of morale for the Roman Legionnaires.
MORE HONORABLE THAN THE STAR OR GARTER. To "bestow honor" was device of flattery. It promoted class distinction and special privilege, as well as the "Divine Right" of kings.
The Order of the Star probably alludes to a society founded in 1351 by John II of France. While it extolled aristocracy, idleness and aloofness, King John engaged in acts of despotism and destruction. Its insignia was a sliver eight-pointed star, worn on the left breast. The Order of the Garter was founded in 1349 by Edward III of England and consisted of the King and 25 knights. It promoted chivalry with the "proper classes," while the so-called "lower classes" were treated with scorn and cruelty.
Freemasonry exists in striking contrast to these concepts. It teaches reverence and service to God. It promotes the pursuit of knowledge, self-reliance and devotion to honest work. It stresses the soundness of moral principles, integrity, justice, good conscience and "right" conduct. It glorifies the building of exemplary character. It dissipates discord and dissension by promoting peace, patriotism, brotherhood and equal opportunity. Indeed, Freemasonry's supports are "Wisdom Strength and Beauty." Its beliefs are "Faith, Hope and Charity." Its tenets are "Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth."
The Lambskin Apron should "continually remind us of that purity of life and conduct" required of Masons. Only "when worthily worn" can we spiritually merit "gaining admission into the Celestial Lodge above, where the Supreme Architect of the Universe presides." We are thus taught accountability for our actions here on earth. And, as we strive to understand Freemasonry's philosophy and practice its lessons, a gradual enlightenment enables us to wear our aprons "with pleasure to ourselves and honor to the Fraternity."
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Blackmer, Rollin C. "The Lodge and the Craft," Macoy Publishing Co. 1976.
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AURI SPIGELMAN is Junior Warden of Composite Lodge No. 595, Los Angeles, and a member of the Grand Lodge Education Committee.
Source: The above article appeared in the Winter 1992 issue of the California Freemason, a publication of the Grand Lodge of California, F&AM. Winter 1992.