Saint Edmund and the real lost symbol’s of Freemasonry
The exterior geometry only hints at the symbolic wonders within
With the recent publication of Dan Brown’s book “The Lost Symbol”, Freemasonry and its associated symbolism have once again hit the headlines.
Here architectural photographer Andy Marshall recounts a tale in words and pictures of some real symbols of Freemasonry found in a mysterious church which may soon be lost…..
Falinge is a small district of Rochdale, Lancashire which lies just outside the town centre. It has recently acquired the dubious mantle of ‘Benefits Capital of the UK’, which brought swiftly upon the concrete laden streets, the vagaries of national press attention. Just 50 metres away from this hotbed of scrutiny was a photographer with an entirely different subject framed within his lens.
Andy Marshall explains: “ I am a photographer with a background in historic architecture and its conservation, and every now and again I get a call to help record a building which is under threat. On this occasion the building was the church of Saint Edmund in Falinge.”
Above: I have painstakingly recorded every piece of stained glass at Saint Edmund and put it linear order. Click the + button top right to see the glass in all its glory and then zoom in to see the detail
Built upon the proportions of Solomon’s Temple?
Miniplanet of the full set of stained glass at Saint Edmunds
Unconventional tracery at the Royd’s Chapel
Andy is getting particularly used to photographing churches which are under threat, but this church overwhelmed him with the sheer quality, individuality and distinctiveness of its interior.
More symbols in the form of vine scroll, acorn and oak leaf motif’s
Doorway to the gallery looking towards the stairs
Gate with masonic symbols (originally in the Royd’s Chapel)
“I remember first meeting the key holder there and discussing the history of the building as we entered the vestry. When we walked into the chancel I soon realised that Saint Edmund wasn’t the average Victorian church. I remember having to hold my excitement until I had the pleasure of being all alone in this remarkable space”.
The richly carved hammer beams in the Chancel
What Andy had come across was a combination of Victorian ingenuity, benevolence and self-belief. A heady mix of interior design and symbolic association which, notes Pevsner (from the famous Buildings of England architectural guide), has symbolism to rival that of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The Chapel at Rosslyn is, of course, the building that recently had its profile raised by its associations with Dan Browns book ‘The Da Vinci Code’.
Saint Edmund, Falinge is known as a “Masonic Church” which, some might say, is a paradoxical mix of secular symbolism within a religious context. It was built in 1873 at the cost of over £20,000 when the average church cost £4000. The church is a real insight into the workings of the late Victorian society. Encompassed within its walls is an eclectic concoction of secular attachments, philanthropic altruism and spiritual aspirations. It was built on land given over by Albert Hudson Royds, who was part of a family banking business in Rochdale. It is infused and influenced by the Royds family and its associations with Freemasonry. Every aspect of the building seems to have an ulterior meaning, from the geometry of the roof trusses, to the symbolism behind the stained glass. The whole structure is said to have the proportions of Solomon’s Temple and is deliberately raised (at what must have been huge cost) upon a stone plinth. The immediate landscaping and road layout pays deference to the church. Because it is raised upon a plinth it can be viewed from miles around.
The Chancel from the Nave
Royd’s Chapel (from the Chancel)
The Altar from the Royd’s Chapel
The Masonic Lecturn
One of Andy’s favourite photography techniques is to take a long shot of an interior with a telephoto lens which foreshortens the subject matter within the shot. “Looking through the viewfinder at Saint Edmund, I was amazed at the visual semiotics on display. Crunched up hard against the crucifix was the square and compasses of the masonic lectern, and shunting the altar steps in the Royd’s Chapel was a plumb line, set square and other geometric symbols carved upon the altar rail”.
Masonic Lecturn with the altar and reredos behind
Behind the main altar is a beautifully sculpted reredos which continues the theme of symbolism. The first impression is of a delicately executed sculpture with leaves and grapes scrolling horizontally from a central vine. Look closer and the words “I AM THE” begin to appear from deep within the foliage.
The sculpture itself is left to reveal the meaning which relates to a passage from the bible: John 15 verse 5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing“. Designed by the first incumbent, the Rev. E. W. Gilbert, it is an articulate example of how sculpture has been used to convey a message, and provide a three dimensional parable on the meaning of faith.
Reredos with ‘I AM THE’ hidden within the vine motif
Royd’s Chapel roof geometry
Detail from the Gallery (note the oak motif’s to the hammerbeam)
During one cold Sunday morning, Andy managed to make a brief glimpse below the church in the voids beneath. A door leads from the crypt into a world of dusty, darkness. “What I found there was remarkable. A brick vault with a single Victorian chair lodged in the rubble; hunks of stone cut offs from the original carvings for the building; and in one particular corner – a wooden mould template for a column or window jamb situated next to a Victorian stopper bottle. It was as if I had travelled back in time to 1873.”
Deep within the recesses of the church a chair stands in solitude
Masonic Lecturn detail
Over the last few years, the church’s congregation has dwindled which has lead to some tough decisions from the Anglican diocese. There is some hope that another use might be found (another Christian denomination is interested) and this is being actively sought by all concerned.
Royd’s Memorial Brass plate detail
Saint Edmund’s ‘in macro’ – pattern and decoration
After several days of photography at Saint Edmund, Andy came across the news articles proclaiming the state of the ‘benefit culture’ in Falinge.
“I was immediately saddened by the parallel divide between the wonderful cultural riches of a church in distress, and the social and economic requirements of the community on its doorstep. If only we could find a way of introducing the one to the other, and harnessing and awakening the tremendous energy and vitality of a church and a community in need.” [End]
This is an revised version (with new images) of an article written last year. More about Andy Marshall…
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