The centre of the Masonic Lodge, and sometimes the entire floor, is covered with a checkerboard-shaped paving known as the Mosaic Pavement. It is made up of alternating black and white squares and is generally surrounded by the three pillars or small columns supporting the Lights. In most continental Masonic Rites, the Mosaic Pavement is considered to be the most sacred place in the temple, on which the Tracing Board is rolled out ; the Mosaic Pavement may not be walked on, at most it may be stepped over during the reception ceremony for the third degree. In Anglo-Saxon Rites, and also in the Rite of Memphis-Misraïm, the Altar is placed in the middle of the Mosaic Pavement, and the Worshipful Master and the recipient necessarily walk on it. Where does the Masonic symbol of the Mosaic Pavement come from? What does the name "Mosaic Pavement" mean ? What is its symbolic significance and how many squares should it comprise ? That is what we will attempt to discover.

The origin of the Mosaic Pavement and its name

Known also as the "Square Pavement" in English, the Mosaic Pavement features in ancient Scottish and English Masonic catechisms. The earliest mention can be found in the manuscripts "Edinburgh Register House" (1696) and "Chetwode Crawley" (1700), which describe the uses of the Mason's Word Masonry in use in Scotland in the seventeenth century. It subsequently appeared in several English, Scottish and Irish manuscripts or disclosures ("Dumfries No. 4", circa 1710; "Trinity College, Dublin", 1711; "A Mason's Confession", circa 1727; "Wilkinson", 1727; "Masonry Dissected", 1730).

These documents do not describe what the Mosaic Pavement is or what it is used for, except for two of them which provide us with the key to this symbol : "A Mason's Confession" and the "Wilkinson" Manuscript. According to these two documents (the first Scottish, the second English), the Mosaic Pavement was used by the Master to draw his plans. We have already pointed out in our previous article on the Tracing Boards that the plans were originally drawn on the ground, on the floor of the room where the Masons worked. The statements in "A Mason's Confession" and "Wilkinson" therefore only clarify this usage : if the Mosaic Pavement is gridded, it is because the layout could thus be easily transposed to a larger scale, using a larger grid. The Mosaic Pavement was therefore originally an operative tool and not a symbolic or decorative pattern.

But why the name "Mosaic Pavement" ? First of all, it is worth noting that the name is relatively recent, since ancient documents only refer to "Square Pavement". The name "Mosaick [sic] Pavement" does not appear until 1727 in the "Wilkinson", which is followed by the "Masonry Dissected" of 1730. As these two documents clearly originate from the tradition of the Grand Lodge of 1717 (or more probably 1721), we can conclude that this term comes from the tradition of the "Moderns".

But what does it mean ? Is "mosaic" taken here in the sense of something relating to the Law of Moses ? More likely does it come from the medieval Latin "mosaicus", a transformation of the classical Latin "musivus", itself derived from the Greek "mouseios", relating to the Muses, i.e. the "deities" who govern the various Arts. It is hardly surprising that this term was adopted by modern Freemasonry, which was born at a time when the intellectual elite were steeped in Greco-Roman antiquity.

The significance of the Mosaic Pavement

In modern Freemasonry, the Mosaic Pavement has lost its meaning as an operative tool and has retained only a symbolic significance. At a date that we have not been able to determine precisely, it took the form of a checkerboard, with alternating black and white squares. It thus became an image of the created world, marked by duality. The symbol of the Mosaic Pavement thus echoes the other symbols of duality in the Lodge (the two Columns, the Sun and the Moon, the South and the North), with the difference that it contains within itself the two poles, inextricably linked. All the complexity of reality is expressed in it : light and darkness, life and death, good and evil, progression and regression...

This interpenetration of black and white is not unlike the Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang, which is also intended to reflect the reality of the world in terms of duality. But the Chinese model is entirely rounded, depicting the alternation of black and white as an incessant movement, similar to that of water or wind, in which balance must constantly be sought through movement.

Mosaic Pavement is more radical in its representation of duality. The squares are clearly delineated and seem more resistant to movement. It's up to the observer to make a choice, to chart his or her own course and sublimate duality through the Ternary principle.

If the Mosaic Pavement does indeed represent the world in its permanent duality, we might well ask why it is virtually forbidden to walk on it in continental Freemasonry ? Isn't there some kind of inconsistency ? We live in this world in which we are submitted to duality : so why, within the Lodge, should we consider the representation of the world to be sacred in its own right ? The work of the Freemason is to sacralise the world of duality by discovering the third term, and to do this, he needs to penetrate this world, including through ritual.

How many squares should the Mosaic Pavement comprise ?

The number of squares on the Mosaic Pavement obviously carries symbolic meaning, and different options can be considered. Many Lodges share the same temples, which are often permanently furnished. In some cases, therefore, it's difficult to choose which Mosaic Pavement to use. But if the Mosaic Pavement is represented on the Lodge Tracing Boards, which is often the case, then Lodges are free to opt for the shape that most makes sense to them.

What are the different options ? We know of three, all of which have a relevant meaning. They are not mutually exclusive and all three can even be used by the same Lodge, as you will see.

The first option is the simplest symbolically : 8 x 8 = 64 squares. 64 is the cube of 4, which is the number of the created world, characterised by the Four Elements, the Four Cardinal Directions, the Four Seasons and so on. Being the cube of 4, 64 therefore refers to the world in three dimensions, the material world we know and live in. The 64-square Mosaic Pavement is therefore purely descriptive : it symbolises the world as we perceive it, without interpreting it. The Entered Apprentice becomes aware of himself and the world in its duality, but does not yet possess the geometric knowledge that would enable him to understand the world and act in it.

The next two options require some geometric knowledge.

The Mosaic Pavement built according to the Golden Ratio : 5 x 8 = 40 squares. As the Golden Ratio is a proportion, other models can be proposed, which keep the same proportion and can be found in the Fibonacci sequence (0-1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34-33-55-89...) : we can therefore envisage a 3 x 5, 8 x 13, 13 x 21 Pavement. The advantage of the 5 x 8 Pavement is that it produces 40 squares. 40 is an important number in the Judeo-Christian tradition : it is the number of expectation, but also of the time needed for spiritual experience (the 40 years spent by Israel in the desert, the 40 days of the temptation of Jesus). Based on the Golden Ratio, which the Fellowcraft discovers in the Blazing Star, the 5 x 8 Mosaic Pavement would be an appropriate element for the second degree Tracing Board.

Finally, the Mosaic Pavement based on the Pythagorean Theorem : 9 x 12 = 108 squares. Here again, we can envisage other models that retain the 3-4-5 ratio of the Pythagorean right-angled triangle : 3 x 4, 6 x 8, 12 x 16. But in our opinion, the most interesting is 9 x 12 = 108, because these three numbers are highly significant. The 9, the square of 3, often appears in Freemasonry from the degree of Master Mason onwards. In particular, it is the number of the battery of the degree and the number of Masters who sought out Hiram's corpse. 12 is a major number in the Judeo-Christian tradition, symbolising fullness and fulfilment (the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles). Finally, the symbolism of the number 108 is more Indian in origin. It symbolises fulfilment, liberation and the end of the initiatory path. The main Hindu gods, as well as the Buddha, have 108 names, there are 108 Upanishads, 108 Asanas (postures) in yoga, 108 beads in the Buddhist rosary, 108 passions in Buddhism... From the Buddhist point of view, the 108 symbolises the attainment of samādhi (recollection, i.e. the highest level of consciousness in meditation), after having eliminated the 108 passions. The Mosaic Pavement 9 x 12 = 108 could be shown on the third degree Tracing Board, as the Master Mason passes through a symbolic death to overcome the passions symbolised by the three evil Fellowcrafts.

Freemasonry offers a way of understanding the world and mankind based on numbers and geometry, and we should avoid using Mosaic Pavements with a random number of squares, devoid of any meaning, as can unfortunately be seen in some Lodges. The three options we propose each offer an interpretation that opens up new horizons of understanding. There are undoubtedly other options that are just as interesting, and we would be delighted to discover them. But in any case, the search for sense has to remain central to the Masonic method, including the layout of the Lodge, because in Freemasonry, everything is a symbol.

January 08, 2024 — Ion Rajalescu