Adapted by V.W. Bro. Norman McEvoy from a paper by Bro. Auri Spigelman (Grand Lodge of California)
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.
What is the value and importance of this Lambskin Apron and why does it excite such emotions?
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 honourable 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 naïveté 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.
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.”
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 labour 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 honourable profession, one of creating and constructing.
It did much to change societal attitudes toward labour, which was no longer thought relegated to slaves or menials.
As the badge of Masons, the apron also represents their “bond of friendship.“
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 mythological 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 labour.”
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 a 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. It’s insignia was a silver 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.
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.”