This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Occasionally, a very beautiful and unusual volume unexpectedly arrives to lift the spirits of the jaded reviewer of books: the art-historian Burkard von Roda’s tome is just that, a fine piece of book-making, properly designed, well printed, decently bound, and plentifully illustrated, much of it in colour. But it is even more than that, for it is a deeply humane, observant, and intelligent study in which the wide learning of its author is clear, as he deals soberly with a controversial topic that usually has timid English architectural historians whinnying with fright because of the allegedly “secret” subject of Freemasonry, supposedly “difficult” to research by those too idle to trouble themselves to find out.
The book is concerned with an extraordinary merchant’s house, built 1775-80 for a silk-ribbon manufacturer, Johann Rudolf Burckhardt (1750-1813), to designs by the architect, Johann Ulrich Büchel (1753-92). Burckhardt was a member of the Basel Masonic Lodge. A Libertate: his creation “on the cherry-garden”, is the oldest example of Masonic built heritage in Switzerland, and is probably one of the first associated with Freemasonry to remain on the site where it was erected. Burckhardt did not live there for very long, however, for he appears to have lost interest in Freemasonry around 1784 when there was a major crisis in the organisation of the Craft: in 1789 he signed the building over to his sons, and moved to a country estate near Gelterkirchen.
The building was purchased by the City of Basel Canton in 1917, and transferred to the Basel Historical Museum in 1930: the author of this marvellous book was Director of the Historisches Museum Basel from 1992 until 2012, so is well-placed in terms of experience and credentials to do justice to a fascinating work of architecture, not least because he is open-minded, and not restricted by prejudice or intellectual cowardice. He has also delved into sources at some length, and his annotations attest to his depth of research.
The façades and interiors of the Haus zum Kirschgarten bear numerous indications that, together with the building’s intended purpose as a salubrious, prestigious residence for a merchant and manufacturer who had “arrived”, it was also designed as a Masonic Lodge and as an Ordenshaus for “Templar Knights”. When Burckhardt’s Palais was constructed, stone from the Church of the Commandery of the Basel Order of St John (demolished 1775) was incorporated within it, thus giving the new structure a kind of historical legitimisation, supposedly linking it to the Knights Templars (Tempelritter), aka Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (Pauperes Commilitones Christi Templique Salomonici), disbanded in the fourteenth century. Reference is made to the three Orders of Architecture; Doric (Strength), Ionic (Wisdom), and Corinthian (Beauty) as well as to Hercules (Strength), Athena/Minerva (Wisdom), and Apollo (Beauty/Light).
It should also be pointed out that the myth of Hercules was associated with the foundation of Helvetian liberty, so in numerous places in Büchel’s intriguing palace, the lion’s skin associated with Hercules recurs. Statuettes of Apollo and Hermes/Mercury, attributes such as the gilded sun-lyre, Templar crosses, and even the Saltire of St Andrew point to Burckhardt not only as a patron of the Arts, but as a senior Freemason. Hermes/Mercury, as The Messenger, was associated with St John, and the Saltire is a sly allusion to the origins of the craft of Freemasonry in Scotland as well as to the high Masonic degree of St Andrew.
As one would expect, the international aspects of Burckhardt’s creation involved craftsmen such as the sculptor Alexander Trippel, a pupil of the great Danish artist and humanist scholar, Johannes Wiedeweldt, and regarded as a forerunner of both Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen. Trippel made a statue of Vesta for a proposed “Vestal Temple” at the Haus zum Kirschgarten, but that Lodge, Zur vollkommenden Freundschaft (To Quintessential Friendship), only remained on paper, and the statue ended up in Dresden.
Even more interesting were the unrealised designs for a temple-like building in the garden of Burckhardt’s house, also designed by Büchel. One was a rotunda, and the other a triangular structure: both had oddly shaped rooms within them, proposals reminiscent of other late eighteenth-century designs for garden buildings, such as the Temple of Diana designed by Szymon Bogumił [Simon Gottlieb] Zug in 1783 for Princess Helena Radziwiłłowa, as part of the exquisite Garden of Allusions she created at Arkadia, near Nieborów, Poland, or the wonderful ensembles in the gardens at Schwetzingen, near Mannheim (1752-95), by Nicolas de Pigage.
Princess Helena was a member of the Grand Adoption Lodge of Warsaw: Arkadia was one of the most interesting eighteenth-century gardens with liberal, elegiac, nationalist, and literary mnemonic agenda encapsulated within its boundaries. Carl Theodor (r. as Prince-Elector [Kurfürst] Palatine of the Rhine from 1742 and Prince-Elector of Bavaria 1777-99) was also noted for a certain open-mindedness, and, with his Grand Chamberlain, the Anglo-American Sir Benjamin Thompson, Graf von Rumford, caused the English Garden in Munich to be laid out as a public park (impovement of tone in society was very much a Masonic aim) from 1789 to designs by Friedrich Ludwig von Sckell, who had also been involved at Schwetzingen.
Those familiar with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (which contains many allusions to Freemasonry), will recall the duet sung by the Two Men in Black Armour, which refers to a traveller being purified by Feuer, Wasser, Luft, und Erden (Fire, Water, Air, and Earth). The Vestal cult is the key to deeper Masonic symbolism: Vesta is an Earth Goddess, and her priestesses keep the sacred Fire, and draw pure Water from the sacred spring for the sacrificial rites. That sacred Fire was rekindled every year, using the power of the Sun, so was connected to Masonic Enlightenment. The Vestals were guardians of the Palladium, an archaic image of Athena/Minerva salvaged from the wreckage of Troy, and brought to Rome where it was kept in the inner shrine of Vesta: it was linked to the virtuous ideal of Wisdom, and also to Freemasonry’s legendary origins associated with the Temple of Solomon.
The intention behind the creation of the Temple of Vesta in Basel seems to have been the making of an all-encompassing symbol, a Temple of Wisdom and Enlightenment in which Friendship and the Secrets of the Order would be protected. The legend of origins in the Order of the Knights Templar was renounced in 1784, however, which goes some way to explain why Burckhardt’s mansion fulfilled its role as a ‘Temple’ for a very short period only.
This book is a major contribution to a brief, but fascinating episode in European history, when Freemasonry permeated virtually every level of society, and was of enormous cultural importance, as has been realised by all students of the Enlightenment, save the most blinkered.
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