Window of Wonder
Scroll down to learn more about the Emile Norman “endomosaic” at the California Masonic Memorial Temple
Behind the “Endomosaic”
In 1957, the artist Emile Norman unveiled what is widely considered to be his masterpiece: A 48-by-38-foot “endomosaic” mural that spans the entire southern face of the California Masonic Memorial Temple’s main foyer. The term was an invention of the artist’s, alluding to his unique method of artmaking. Today, the work is seen by more than 200,000 patrons of the building each year—making it one of the city’s most visited public works of art.
Emile Norman (1918–2009) was plucked from virtual obscurity to create the massive artwork. Building architect Albert Roller had seen one of his so-called “endomosaic” windows at the Casa Munras hotel in Monterey (near Norman’s Big Sur home) and envisioned a similar, light-filled work dominating the new temple building. In 1956, Roller commissioned Norman to produce a showstopping endomosaic for the temple’s interior, as well as a bas relief war memorial sculpture for the temple facade.
The Project of a Lifetime
Norman threw himself headlong into the commission. He spent nearly 20 months creating the endomosaic and fashioning each of its 45 panels. Additionally, he and partner Brooks Clement (who is also credited on the endomosaic) traveled to Carrara, Italy, to oversee the quarrying of the marble used for the frieze on the building’s facade (seen in the image here). Though neither were Masons, Norman and Clement spent several months studying the fraternity and its almost endless vernacular of symbolism and iconography to develop a mural that told the story of not only Freemasonry in California, but of the Masonic journey itself.
The Memorial Frieze
Norman’s bas relief frieze on the exterior of the California Masonic Memorial Temple commemorates figures from each of the four branches of the armed forces, depicted in “ageless” dress. Beside them, a tug of war between the forces of good and evil, or democracy and totalitarianism, is shown above the phrase, “Dedicated to our Masonic brethren who died in the cause of freedom.”
A detail from Norman’s bas relief is installed on the temple’s exterior in early 1958.
An Icon of Iconography
Full of Masonic iconography and depicting the Masons of California’s contributions to the history of the state, the endomosaic is a wonder of midcentury design and materials. Each of the 45 panels (weighing some 250 pounds each) are pressed between two panes of acrylic, or plastic, coating. The result—neither a mosaic nor stained-glass—has an incredibly vibrant, tactile quality.
Between the panes of acrylic are more than 180 hues of crushed, colored glass, along with other materials including soil, plant matter, metals, fabric, and seashells. Here, at the artist’s Big Sur studio, jars of the crushed glass used in the endomosaic line several shelves.
Deciphering the Mural
From its esoteric imagery to its allusions to fraternal and state history, it’s a work that rewards a close reading. Here, a few clues behind its many meanings.
Masters of the Lodge
The sun and all-seeing eye, with Masonic elected grand lodge officers’ symbols
Towering above the mural is the all-seeing eye, set within a blazing sun. A reminder that our actions are seen and judged by others, and that we are accountable to one another, the all-seeing eye is not a strictly Masonic symbol, but rather one used in several religious traditions around the world. Its use on the dollar bill has led to much speculation over the years about its ties to Freemasonry, but its Masonic meaning does not actually have anything do with the U.S. currency. Rather, within Masonry, it symbolizes harmony in the universe.
Beneath the eye are the emblems denoting the various elected officers of the Grand Lodge—the leaders of the fraternity in California. From left, they are the radial sundial (representing the grand lecturer); crossed keys (grand treasurer); the level (senior grand warden); the interlocking square and compass with sunburst and quadrant (representing the grand master), the square-and-compass with jewel (deputy grand master), the plumb (junior grand warden); and the crossed key and pen (the symbol of the grand secretary).
The California Freemason
Figure with apron, various images
The central figure represents the past, the present, and the future of California Freemasonry. Surrounding the figure, who wears the white apron that is the primary identifier of a Mason, are symbols of the state’s prominent industries of the 1950s, from wine and logging to shipping and film. The icons depict the diverse background, professions, and skills of California Masons.
American Flag and Flag of the California Republic
Masons have played important roles in the founding of both the United States and California. Both are represented in the mural. In fact, 14 U.S. presidents have been Masons, as well as nine signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The wayfaring man and the seafaring man
The earliest American settlers reached California by both land and sea; both are represented in the figures to the left and right of the central Masonic silhouette. At the left is the wayfarer, who holds a piece of fruit to represent the farmer, rancher, and the agricultural riches of California. Behind him are the gold miner, holding a pick, and the trapper, holding a musket.
On the right-hand side of the central figure, the seafarer holds a navigational compass, representing the traders and navigators who arrived in California in the early 1800s. Behind the seafarer are a fisherman and a ship captain, likely representing Freemason Levi Stowell, who sailed with the charter for California Lodge No. 1 from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco via the Isthmus of Panama.
The Celestial Beings
Stars, sun and moon, and sprig of Acacia
Framing the mural at the top left and right are symbols of the stars, the sun and moon, and leaves of the acacia tree—all important Masonic symbols. Astrological symbols including the sun, moon, and seven stars are used to demonstrate constancy and regularity. The “blazing star” is often used to depict “Masonic light,” or knowledge. The sprig of acacia—an evergreen—represents the immortality of the soul. The wood from the acacia tree was used in the construction of King Solomon’s Temple—the foundational story from which Freemasonry derives its symbolic meaning.
The Foundations of Freemasonry
Pillars, tapers, altar, Bible, and sun
Running horizontally in bands across the mosaic, both above and beneath the central figures, are a series of images that allude to some of the most important themes in Freemasonry. Beginning at the top-left, they include the twin pillars found the entrance to King Solomon’s Temple, and which are depicted in every Masonic lodge room. Next to that is an image of three burning tapers, representing the three “lesser lights” of Freemasonry: the sun, moon, and the master of the lodge. Beside it is the altar, which supports the holy books and is a place of communion with the divine. Finally, the Bible topped by the square and compass represents the three “great lights” of Masonry; while the letter “G” within the sunburst is said to represent geometry, the foundational science of stonemasonry.
The Working Tools
Common gavel and 24-inch gauge, plumb, square, level, trowel
On the right-hand panel, the icons running horizontally across the top of the image depict the stonemason’s working tools, used allegorically in Freemasonry to illuminate important concepts. From left, they begin with the 24-inch gauge and common gavel—the first tools introduced to the entered apprentice. (The gauge is described in the first Masonic degree as a means of dividing the 24 hours of the day into useful employment.) Beside them are the plumb, representing uprightness; the builder’s square (morality and truth); the level (equality); and trowel, which is used to spread the “cement of friendship.”
Capitol building and automotive scene, schoolhouse, and Masonic lodge rooms
The eight vignettes depicted in scenes on the left-hand panel of the mural tell a story of history and progress in California. At the top left is the state capitol, next to an image depicting the automobile, train, and airplane. Both recall Masonry’s contributions to the state’s government and transportation infrastructure. In fact, 19 governors of California have been Freemasons, and four Masons have represented the state in the U.S. senate.
Beneath them are an image of a schoolhouse and several Masonic meeting rooms. The schoolhouse represents the birth of the California public school system, founded by Freemason John Swett, the “father of education” in the United States. The scenes at bottom left represent the covered wagon that reached California by land. Many of the first Masonic lodges in California were carried overland from states including Missouri, Maryland, and beyond. At left is a Native American on horseback, representing the state’s first inhabitants and the settling of the frontier.
Among the Masonic lodge rooms depicted here is the “Red House” at Fifth and J streets in Sacramento. In 1850, the building served as the first Grand Lodge of California headquarters.
History and progress on California’s waterways
The scenes of sea life depict the Masons’ bridge-building efforts that connected the complex waterways of California and contributed to international trade. Beneath them, four panels illustrate the seafaring industries and the 1846 landing at Monterey by Admiral John Drake Sloat, thought to be the first Mason to arrive in California. At bottom, two panels depict the early schooners that arrived in California by way of the Hawaiian Islands. Some of the first-known Masons to land in California were sea captains like John Meek, a trader on the Hawaii–California route who in 1843 became a charter member of Le Pres No. 124, the first Masonic lodge in Hawaii. In 1852, he organized Hawaiian Lodge No. 24 under the Grand Lodge of California. (Hawaiian lodges were part of the Grand Lodge of California until 1989.)
The Degrees of Masonry
Apron, pillars, handshake, point within a circle, vessels, mosaic, staircase
Square images along the bottom-left of the mural represent Masonic iconography related to the voyage through the degrees of Freemasonry. From left, they are the white lambskin apron (the central icon of Freemasonry and the token given to the new initiate); the Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian columns (representing wisdom, strength, and beauty, and often emblematic of the three leaders of the lodge); a handshake, an emblem of friendship; and the holy book upon which all members take their oaths during the initiation. (Masons accept members of all religious traditions.) Beneath the holy book is a point within a circle, an important concept within Masonry that alludes to one’s influence over the circumstances around them.
Continuing the Masonic journey through the degrees, several more images along the bottom panel expand on the theme, including three vessels of corn, wine, and oil (the symbolic “wages” paid to early stonemasons, and now used ceremonially in the consecration of a new building). The mosaic pavement, tessellated border, and blazing star beside the vessels represent the so-called “ornaments” of the lodge room. (The checkerboard floor represents good and evil; the border, the blessings and comforts that surround us; and the star, the divine providence who bestows those blessings.) Finally, the staircase—typically seen as winding—is made up of three, five, and seven steps. The sets of steps align with the teachings of each of the three degrees of Masonry. The first three steps are explained as representing life stages (youth, manhood, old age); followed by the five steps that allude to the five orders of architecture, or the five senses; and finally the seven steps, representing the seven liberal arts and sciences (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).
Emblems of Masonry
Three steps and pot of incense
Running along the top and bottom of the mural are several images with esoteric meanings to Masons. Beneath the wayfarer and seafarer, these images include figures ascending three brick steps, symbolizing the three degrees of Freemasonry (entered apprentice, fellow craft, and master Mason). Beside them is a pot of incense (the emblem in Masonry of a pure heart).
To the right of the central figure, along the bottom of the mural, the Masonic emblems continue with the beehive (representing industry and cooperation, and commonly associated with the third degree of Freemasonry) and a sword atop the Constitutions of Freemasonry, a symbol of the importance of guarding Masonic traditions and values.
Sword and heart, all-seeing eye, anchor
Rounding out the bottom panel are several Masonic symbols that allude to life lessons contained within the teachings of the Masonic degrees. From left, they include a depiction of a sword pointed at a naked heart (symbolically, a reminder to guard one’s heart against impure thoughts) and the all-seeing eye that’s always above us. Next to them are the anchor (symbolizing hope) and the ark, a reminder that we are all on the same vessel when things get rough.
Ark, 47th Proposition of Euclid, hourglass, scythe
To the right of the anchor and ark, and completing the Masonic voyage are the final lessons: First, the 47th Proposition of Euclid (a geometrical tool used to create a perfect right angle), and finally, the winged hourglass and the scythe, representing mortality and the brevity of one’s time on earth.
Fighting Against the Light
Norman’s endomosaic process was both ahead of its time and also, in terms of conservation, something of an untested medium. Half a century after it was first installed, it was beginning to show its age.
As David Wessel, the principal of Architectural Resources Group, explains, “These long-chain polymers, which is what acrylics are, do eventually deteriorate from ultraviolet light exposure.“
So, in 2006, Wessell’s firm was called in to restore and conserve the work—a massive job that ran to nearly half a million dollars. It was a learning experience for Wessel, who is not a Mason but says he relished the opportunity to learn about the Masonic symbols contained within the artwork. “It’s so intriguing,” he says. “It draws you in.”
With Norman’s blessing and armed with his original instructions, Wessel’s team removed each panel individually to assess and treat the tessera (the pieces of the mosaic). Once complete, the team reinstalled the panels and installed UV-filtering panels on the exterior to lessen its exposure to the light. And, as an added failsafe, his conservationists took ultra-high-resolution photographs of each panel, so that should the piece ever need to come down, they can develop a transparency to install in its place.
Seen here is an early, scale model of Norman’s endomosaic, housed in his Big Sur studio.
Images courtesy of Winni Wintermeyer, the Emile Norman Arts Foundation, and the Henry Wilson Coil Library and Museum of Freemasonry.
Learn MoreWhat's a Masonic Lodge Room?