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Room: Tracing Board Treasury

Introduction to the Tracing Board Treasury

In announcing the opening of the Tracing Board Treasury, Richard Niessen preached a sermon documented in The Palace of Typographic Masonry, and coincidentally at the invitation to the event.


Thinking in antiquity and much of the Middle Ages was dominated by the idea that things in the everyday world of appearance were real only because a higher, divine truth revealed itself in them. The visible world was a reflection of primordial images and eternal thoughts. Things played a role as 'symbols' of another world: symbols carry the mind beyond the limits of the finite, they arouse suspicions and suggestions. They are the signs of the unspeakable.

The word "symbol" comes from the Greek "symbolon", meaning to fit or recognise together. The term refers to two potsherds that fitted together accurately. The shards were kept by two distant parties or families. Bringing them together was considered proof of their alliance or kinship. Symbols served as identifying marks and have traditionally had something to do with concealment and thus secrecy.

A sign, on the other hand, is unambiguous and defined. Think of road signs, our letters and signs in musical notation. On the contrary, a symbol refers to invisible things like thoughts, ideas and feelings. The symbol evokes an experiential world and is more unambiguous.

Symbols have traditionally been very effective in focusing the public's attention on virtues and ideals, obligations and spiritual values. Nowadays, advertising in particular makes full use of conscious or unconscious symbolism, with the aim of influencing buying behaviour. Hence, symbols are omnipresent in visual culture: they define our street scene with flags, logos, clothing and architecture, on packaging, posters, billboards, in apps and films.

Collaborating symbols form a language of symbols, such as the symbols for the signs of the zodiac, Christian symbolism or the symbols of hip-hop culture. Such symbols are interconnected, but not in a functional mechanism like an alphabet. Each symbol stands for a complex meaning, which you do not learn easily. Together, they help give coherence and clarity to the network of conceptions, beliefs, theories and ceremonies. The symbolism acts as a harmonious binding agent while keeping the uninitiated at bay.


Freemasonry is an international freethinking movement, with its origins in the masonic guilds of the Middle Ages. The term 'freemasonry' comes from French, where it was spoken of frère-maçons, literally: brother-builders. In English, frère-maçons was bastardised into freemasonry. The aim of Freemasonry is the pursuit of spiritual and moral elevation, mutual esteem and mutual help.

Freemasonry's modus operandi is that of initiation, a ritual play. The symbolic language, in which every aspect of Freemasonry's worldview is condensed into an image that clearly and powerfully communicates its function within the whole, is used as a tool that runs through initiation. The three basic symbolic degrees are those of apprentice, companion and master, and with each degree increase, a new piece of insight is mastered. Deliberately, direct initiation through textbooks with texts and definitions is not used, but for an indirect symbolic approach.

The symbols used are not specifically devised by Freemasons, but of much older origin, for example classical antiquity, nature, ancient Egypt, Christian and Jewish religious history, medieval guilds and, of course, the builder's trade. For example, the compass and shop hook (the emblem of Freemasonry) already appear in a number of Egyptian pyramids, Euclid's 47th problem comes from mathematics, and the trowel, hammer and yardstick are originally tools used by the ancient building guilds.

Drawing boards or tableaux are used to explain the material covered in the different degrees. They are illustrations with the various symbols of Freemasonry, used as teaching aids during lectures in which an experienced member explains the various concepts, but also as mnemonics for previously learned concepts.

In the eighteenth century, Freemasons met mainly in private rooms above taverns, and the symbolic designs were chalked on the floor in the centre of the rented room. A simple boundary was drawn within which the various symbols, such as a ladder, a rope and an accacia branch, were added. At the end of a meeting, as a practical demonstration of secrecy, the drawing was erased with a mop.

Gradually, these drawings were replaced by a removable 'floor cloth' on which the various symbols were painted, and eventually, from the 19th century onwards, series of drawing boards with a degree of standardisation were produced. In The Treasury of Signboards, these carriers of Masonic symbols have been collected, as a specific but significant example of the functioning of a symbolic world.

The Treasury of Signs

In any society or (sub)culture, symbols function as liquid cement and mutate with changes in the social order. Nowadays, populist politics and commerce exploit the communicative power of symbols more than ever, while at the same time we can see that many graphic designers (from their functionalist conditioning) seem to have more and more of a problem with them. Probably because symbols are impure and archaic, and uncontrollable in their meaning effects, associated with superstition and irrationality. They evoke associations with suspect styles and kitsch. As a designer, you then have a problem, symbols simultaneously produce 'too much' and 'too little' meaning. And for a client, ambiguity and poetry are phenomena that are difficult to measure and impossible to pin down....

But if you find that symbols work very well, precisely also to represent public and collective issues, that they are amazingly effective in arousing suspicions and suggestions, then you should look for a way to do something with them! Of course, in a new way, playfully, without dogmatic constraints. And isn't it precisely up to the graphic designer to find ways to make those magical connections between the ancient domain of symbols and contemporary design? In The Palace of Typographic Masonry, The Treasure House of Signs aims to inspire to get to work with these reflections of the higher forms of existence, these evocative signs of the unspeakable that carry our minds away beyond the limits of the finite!