From the General Grand Council of Cryptic Masons International Education Committee
Especially in Sculpture: the Via Negativa and the Symbolism of the Secret Vault
By Most Illustrious Companion Mark Z. Oldknow, Guest Author, KYGCH, PMIGM of New Mexico
MIC Mark Z. Oldknow
PMIGM of New Mexico
Most Illustrious Companion Mark Z. Oldnow, 33°is a Past Most Illustrous Grand Master of Royal and Select Masters of New Mexico, a Knight of York Grand Cross of Honor, and currently serves as Personal Representative for the Valley of Santa Fe AASR SJ. MIC Oldknow gives Masonic presentations across the country and hosts a monthly podcast “Circumambulations” exploring the symbolism and esoterics of Scottish Rite Freemasonry. In his spare time, he serves as Associate Director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness
In the educational lecture for the Select Master degree, we are told that the workers on the Secret Vault were “… all well skilled in the arts and sciences generally, but especially in that of sculpture.” This is an exceptional statement. It is the only real reference to the qualifications that distinguish the elite Giblim permitted to realize this great work, yet it is never again expounded upon or even referenced (anywhere in Freemasonry so far as I’ve found). Although easy to overlook, this allusion hints at a foundational idea in comparative theology and illuminates an age-old approach to the Divine.
Classical art is characterized by its emphasis on harmony, balance, and proportion. By the 7th century BCE, the Hellenistic Greeks were constructing buildings whose architecture reflected these underlying philosophical values. At the same time, the Greeks began producing magnificent sculpture that represented the human form realistically and fluidly, capturing a sense of animation and vitality unlike anything preceding. To render a stone with such life-like distinction was more than a mere mortal endeavor. Indeed, in the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder recounts a story in his “Natural History” about the artist Protogenes who became frustrated while attempting to paint the foam around a dog’s mouth realistically. In his aggravation, he threw a sponge at the canvas and it caught the image he was seeking. Pliny interprets this parable as revealing that nature herself is the artist (and geometrician!), and that man is but her agent.
Among the seven classical art forms – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, dance, architecture, and theater – only sculpture emerges by an act of subtraction or removal. Each other art form adds something to create, such as paint to a canvas or words to a page. Sculpture is instead said to reveal what is already hidden in the stone or clay. As an act of revelation, sculpture serves as a symbol of enlightenment. And, as such, it speaks to a long and foundational idea in theology and mystic spirituality.
Broadly speaking, there are two forms of theology: kataphatic and apophatic. Kataphatic theology makes positive assertions about the nature of the Divine: i.e., God is Love or God is Good. This is a necessary perspective that allows us our minds to distinguish, and our hearts to appreciate, the Divine as immanent in creation. God is actively present in our world and our lives, we can sort of point to it. But there is a conceptual problem with this approach alone because the Divine Unity also transcends any mere assertion. God is more than any simple assertion in itself, so He cannot be said to be any assertion proper. Moreover, God is infinite – omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent – so even a list of all possible positive assertions cannot sum to define Him. Through the multiplicity of positive assertions alone, the mind can never hope to grasp the infinite unity. No matter how many assertions are made, there remains an infinite number more. As with Zeno’s great paradox, you just can’t get there from here.
Apophatic theology mirrors the kataphatic, it is also called the “Via Negativa” or Path of Denial. It instead emphasizes what can NOT be attributed to the Divine, thus God is not (only) Love or God is not (only) Good. The apophatic approach serves to strip all conceptual forms or limitations, transcending them and revealing the infinity behind them. It does not provide another infinite list of “nots,” but rather does away with lists whatsoever. It cannot be taught, but it can be practiced and shared through each person’s own mediation and labor. By a reductionist leap of apophatic faith, one may arrive at the still voice within and know God. It is a theology of the heart rather than mind, it is the way of wisdom (gnosis) rather than knowledge.
The Via Negativa is a keystone of western mysticism. The Sacred Name communicated to Moses at the Burning Bush is itself universal and transcendent. The roots of the Via Negativa emerge in Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy. Philo of Alexandria was a first century proponent, and Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite introduced the perspective to 5th century Christianity. It is clearly reflected in the mysticism of Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross, and serves as an underpinning for both the dogma of Thomas Aquinas and the modern panentheism of Matthew Fox. It is paralleled in Islamic Sufism, the Hindu Atman, the Buddhist Shunyata, and in the Tao (which can only be described poignantly as “not that”).
So perhaps the Via Negativa offers some symbolic insight regarding the qualifications of those who labored on the nine arches of the Secret Vault. Nine is the highest single integer number. It is obtained by multiplying the holy trinity by itself (and again to obtain the number of workers in total 33 = 27). Thus it is a symbol of the universal and the spiritual, and it is preserved by unutterable silence in the secrecy of each sculptor’s heart.