Freemasonry is steeped in mystery and, due to its secretive nature, has long been regarded with suspicion. Its connection with the Illuminati and New World Order conspiracy theories has also given it a place in pop culture. Mozart featured Masonic symbology in his opera The Magic Flute, and one of the more fanciful theories surrounding his death suggests that the Freemasons poisoned him for divulging their secrets.
Culture Connect, which aims to provide curated cultural experiences to everyone, recently gave a rare opportunity to visit the Lodge de Goede Hoop, South Africa’s oldest Masonic lodge.
The lodge is situated on some of the most expensive real estate in Cape Town, right next to Parliament, on land purchased in 1800. It was designed by Louis Michel Thibault (1750 – 1815), a highly-regarded French architect whose low birth hampered his career ambitions. He arrived in the Cape as part of a mercenary regiment contracted to the VOC, but pretty soon his talents were put to better use, and his distinctive neo-classicism can still be seen in landmark buildings across Cape Town.
The tour started in the octagonal entry hall. After a round of introductions the Assistant Grand Master of the lodge, John Smith, told us about the history of Freemasonry in South Africa, and the origins of modern Freemasonry from the honour system of medieval stonemasons’ guilds. He further explained how Freemasons were forced underground to avoid religious and political persecution when they were seen as a threat. We were assured that there are female Freemasons, who have their own lodges, but John remained elusive about the details of the Masonic rituals, and told us to join a lodge if we wanted to know more.
We then headed to the bench-lined main temple, where architect Albert van Jaarsveld told us at length about Thibault’s prowess as an architect. Facts poured out of him, and he had to be cut short to allow John to tell us more of the symbolic layout of the chamber. The dimensions follow that of the Temple of King Solomon, as described in the Old Testament. Rather than Biblical, it appeared to have been transported straight from 18th century France. Disappointingly, the original painted cloth on the ceiling, depicting the firmament, has been replaced by a tacky vinyl print that would surely make Thibault spin in his grave.
We moved on to three smaller ritual chambers to see the magnificent sculptures by Anton Anreith (1754 – 1822) which survived a fire in 1892. The first chamber, to the right of the foyer, houses Anreith’s statue of ‘Silence’, in front of which the Ritual of Silence is performed. Albert did a lot of talking here. The Assistant Grand Master and Provincial Grand Secretary appeared visibly uncomfortable when we were told perhaps more than we should know. If the conspiracy theories are to be believed, Albert should be fearing for his life.
To the left of the foyer lies the Chamber of Meditation, containing the statue of the mythical slain Temple architect Hiram Abiff with a dagger, book and hourglass. It is a dark and gloomy room, with the only light coming from the statue’s illuminated alcove. High on the walls on either side of the doorway are two smaller niches containing a skull and bones.
From here we walked through a heavy wooden door and through a low passageway, into the Middle or Master’s Chamber. A recess in the opposite wall holds the statue of ‘Grief’ – a weeping woman and child. The room is the largest of the side chambers, and has a high roof. Like the Chamber of Meditation, the entire room is painted black, apart from the statue alcoves. We heard how Anreith, who arrived in the Cape as a German soldier for the VOC, became renowned for his sculptural reliefs – now recognised as the crowning achievement of the Cape Baroque style.
Culture Connect’s tours nearly always include a meal – a chance for the participants to further discuss all they’ve experienced. Filled with facts, but famished, we departed to nearby Maria’s Greek Restaurant in Dunkley Square, where we tucked into a three-course meal of shared dishes, and a little wine. I was concerned that the food would not be enough for my generous appetite, but I went home pretty well stuffed. I hope my gluttony didn’t cause anyone to go to bed hungry.
Admittedly, I may have been coaxed out of hibernation with the promise of a meal, but I also feel enriched having been on this tour. Many Capetonians miss out on the wealth of hidden treasures their city has to offer. Kate Crane Briggs deserves applause for her initiative to make cultural tourism accessible to non-tourists.