Rosslyn’s King of Terrors: A Masonic Interpretation
“The King of Terrors – A 17th Century Guild Stone”
Photo: Copyright Alison Stenning, 2006
This memorial shows “the dance of death” with the King of Terrors, Death himself, and includes the Latin inscription to the top left of “Omnia mors aequat”, which means “Death equals all things”. This stone is therefore said to represent the verses contained within the Book of Job, Chapter 18, from the Holy Bible. With this interpretation, both the inscription and the Bible verses, mean that the stone represents that even the seated and robed king and naked pauper are equal in death, and it is a form of Memento Mori – “Remember that you must die”.
However I suggest another, more Masonic interpretation exists, hidden symbolically behind the veil of “the dance of death”:-
Rather than a robed and seated King, this carving may depict the Master Mason, in his robes, in quiet reflection at the moment of death, hands clasped together, possibly in prayer, upon his Master’s Chair, upon his Sacred Pedestal (the Sacred Volume of the Law), meaning that he has a strong foundation in life and death.
He is being threatened by a Jube (three characters within Masonic Ritual), balancing upon two circular objects (see later for their interpretation), meaning that this figure is upon shaky ground, i.e. a person without foundation to his life; to give up his secrets, or die (none exist), by the hammer like object, of which only the head remains, known as a stonemason’s heavy maul, hitting the Master on top of the forehead.
However the Master is protected by Death, (crowned “The King of Terrors”). Death is about to use his scythe, as the Master is smitten, by the attacker on shaky ground, who is trying to steal the Master’s secrets. So Death is going to cut the ground from beneath the naked, in darkness, cowan, thief!
The memorial is a Masonic allegory of the Third Degree, and higher secrets of Freemasonry. It is said that the stone was found in a nearby cemetery, so it may be from a tomb, and if so it reveals whoever's tomb it was, the occupant was a Mason, and a Master of a Masonic Lodge in life. It gives the mason who views the carved spectacle, reference to the rituals, and teaches about the mode of death, but it also protects the occupant from the thieves, known as Jubes discussed in the Third Degree Ritual. It may teach that at the point of the viewer’s symbolic death or the presumed allegorical mode of ritual after death, there is a secret to be found.
This reinforces the idea that to go to the afterlife we must have a strong moral foundation. We must also notice that the Master is seated upon a Chair, with its seat and two level rungs, representing his knowledge of Jacob’s Ladder, resting upon the Volume of the Sacred Law, which is open and facing the observer. He isn't really bothered by the thief, due to him sitting with hands grasped in prayer and in quiet reflection, but looking straight ahead, beyond the thief to Death. This means that he has strong faith upon his own conviction, foundation and Masonic knowledge, handed down to him from the Most High (God), and is just waiting for the thief to unbalance himself without lifting either hand, and is with Faith, facing Death, the King of Terrors, full in face, with open eyes and gazing past the Jube, to his eternal mortal companion, fearless of the End.
The Master can see that Death will strike down the thief from behind, and Death's eyes are upon them both. It may also infer that anyone who had wrongly effected the mason in life shall be cut away from the Master’s journey and meet death's justice, to be left behind a wreck upon the ground, after falling from his shaky pedestal.
Death’s crown means that he is the King of this world, but if he swings his scythe, as he looks like he will, remembering that the skeleton also represents the Master in the next world, then Death will lose his crown to the feet of the seated Master, as he lunges to cut the circular objects away from the cowan’s resting feet.
At the moment depicted, the Master hasn't set his hands upon the crown, because it's on Death's head, and is still out of reach. However, when Death swings, to cut down the cowan, the crown will fall off his head, and fall to the Master’s feet, which will then allow the master to pick it up and wear the crown of Death, and Death’s crown becomes his own, and he may wear it as his own, i.e. this tells us that with skill we may perfect power over death. To beat death, you must become him! As Marcus Aurelius said “Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back”. And the inscription again: “Death equals all things”.
This scene may also tell us that, those who trespass against us, may actually raise us up by their own evil and hateful desires, without them (the Jubes) really realising, as the Jube cannot see death behind him, but the Master is already one step ahead, and has designed this memorial revealing his knowledge of the mode of death, and how the mason may go about it, for the observer to then put into practice.
Whoever this Mason was, he must have thought long and hard about this carving, and may have been an operative mason i.e. a stonemason too. You can see the memorial only contains a few symbols but to a well reflected mason it is like a book of answers. Many Masonic graves reveal symbolism and teachings which are hard to interpret by Masonic and none Masonic folk alike.
There's a little more to this memorial to think about, such as:- is the Jube on a shaky foundation, being sacrificed by the skilled Master, and Death is actually the reflection of the Master in the next World, i.e. through the Mirror of the Veil. And when the Master as Death takes a swing to unbalance the Jube, and un-level him, punishing the Jube by the Jube’s ‘at hand’ selected tool, the Master’s future self in the next World, gives up his crown, this may serve to tell the observer that even in the next world, the mason has work to do. But also maybe that through Death and the shedding of worldly desires, he then, is equal with Death, and the newly crowned Master, ready to start his new life above, to live and work to ever more perfection. Also it tells us that those who trespassed against us in life may become our jumping board to the higher secrets of that which is above, i.e. those unworthy of the next life are not of our level, and fall with a slight swing of fate, and through their own greed, to the dust, and become dust. This supposition also tells the observer, that perfection is never-ending and ascendance is key, for we ask of the Most High, build, sustain us until the End!
Death and his crown, the next world, his next life, are waiting to be perfected by the skilled Master Mason upon his wearing of the crown of death that fell to his feet when his self as Death cut down his attacker. This represents that the next world for the mason, is available to him to perfect himself, ever so further, and if linked with the circular object beneath the feet of the Jube, this may infer that life and death is the Ouroboros, the never-ending cycle, i.e. existence is immortal and worlds never-ending for those who have perfected themselves adequately in each cycle or level of existence, with Jacob’s Ladder teaching us this mode of climbing perfection.
A mason’s work never ends, but whilst labouring for the Most High, and perfecting his own skills, there will always be times for reward and refreshment.
This may be inferred by the two circular objects, beneath the naked Jube, that on the left, a circular loaf of bread, and that on the right, a cup of wine. This can in the human psyche, represent communion, the Christian ritual, but in this case actually represents both the fruits of labour bringing reward, i.e. sustenance and satisfaction in the symbolic form of food and drink, after labour; as well as the Christian ritual, of bread being the flesh and wine the blood of the Christ. Death’s scythe also cuts both these objects from under the Jubes feet, symbolically saying that his flesh and blood is spilt, as well as that the Master has no more need for his flesh or blood, for he is at Death.
Knowing that Christ is the King of Heaven, another secret may be obtained when viewing the scene, that the secret of the Christ is both in the Sacred Book, Jacob’s Ladder, the mode of death, and Death himself! This certainly becomes apparent when realising the Latin inscription is above crowned Death “Death equals all things”, being written each side of Death’s Crown and his Scythe’s Staff, we realise what it infers, even Death or Christ may be our equal, if we follow the correct Waye of Life!
The interpretation of the two circular object being wine and bread gives another meaning, which is, that the Jube is a greedy soul, as he has everything physical in life, both worldly sustenance and satisfaction, but does not have the spiritual knowledge and secrets of a Master Mason. This is why he is pictured stood upon a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, his throne, yet unbalanced, morally, and without the secrets of a Master Mason, but desiring them. He will never be satisfied until he has it all, and without the necessary labour, desires to steal those secrets through threats and violence. The Jube depicted here has it all, except wisdom, and wants to steal that of which the Master Mason has been rewarded through his dedicated labour, hence the naked figure is a Jube and hence a thief!
There is another secret hidden within the image, if we take that the two circular objects, as representing both bread and wine, and the Sacred Book beneath the Master’s Chair. All three are depicted at a 90 degree or square angle to everything else in the scene, like these are sat upon a table or altar, the table of the Last Supper, even, or more correct masonically speaking, upon the tracing board, teaching us of what it depicts.
This also implies that the naked Jube has not taken of the secrets symbolised in the bread the flesh and the wine the blood, for he is stood at right angles with them, and hence is at right angles with the True Master, so not with Him, and hence not an upright upon that table.
This implies another secret, that the naked Jube, is what we must leave behind, it is our worldly self, who is built and founded upon flesh and blood, naked and in darkness to the world above, which symbolises the Masonic rituals as a ladder as well, and through the Master Mason leaving the worldly life behind, he may then move forward into the next, sacrificing his old self to begin anew, as the True Master metaphorically teaches.
The supposition that this symbolic table or altar, also represents the Last Supper, also infers that the cup of wine in front of the seated Master represents the Holy Grail, the Cup of Christ, the stone even has writing carved around the lip of the cup, which is hard to decipher, and as above may symbolise the Ouroboros, yet when the scythe knocks this and the bread over, and cuts it in two, and the wine / blood spills, it is shared with the observer, i.e. we have been given the communion, and then the viewer observes, that not only does this memorial stone represent all these things, it is actually sharing like the True Master, the secrets of his teachings, his communion is shared with you, and you are at the Last Supper, albeit symbolically!
The cup of wine possibly also represents all of our living deeds, and if full when knocked over, symbolic of the underground stream, all of the knowledge the True Master, and what the true and faithful must attain, and that the cup, the Master’s cup, is over flowing, and it falls to the viewer, and all of his knowledge is at your disposal, you just need to sup it up, and understand, and he has even broke bread with you, with his scythe he has halved the loaf, and shared his secrets, and the secrets he knows of the True Master.
This gives the viewer the feeling that the mode of death is all about perspective, and that viewing this memorial, we must always look with a skilful eye upon what we perceive, for to perceive that which is hidden is an art, and all of life a matter of what we perceive!
This means to the skilful Master Mason or any viewer with wisdom, who views this Mason’s memorial, who has passed through the veil, as well as all that discussed above, that life and death, the physical and metaphysical worlds, etc, must be viewed from every angle and through observing, with knowledge and clear perception, we may perfect ourselves, and attain that of the True Master, who in this case is the King of Terrors, Death himself, the Christ!
For He died, He was with Death, He then Rose again, and then He ascended unto Heaven!
If this one stone kept within the sacred building of Rosslyn Chapel can tell the viewer this much, then think of the infinite knowledge this one Temple of God and its whole, teaches, for the Temple of Solomon once existed, but now the Temple exists across the Face of the Earth!
Never look and don’t see, think and observe, for the eyes don’t always see what the mind, but especially the true and faithful heart does, the secret is within all things, no matter how small and insignificant the individual thinks they are, everything tells a unique story, for like above, the cup is overflowing!