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Magical signs in masonry

Since the rise of brick masonry in Western Europe in the 12th and 13th century, masons incorporated over-burned stones, a natural phenomenon in primitive furnaces, into their structures. These black stones in red baking clay, red stones in yellow baking clay or green-glazed stones as a result of using saline peat as fuel for baking differed in colour, yet were of equal good quality. Masons started to apply them in patterns that covered entire walls or wall parts as well as in individual characters. Since the figures are found in the whole Western European region and in different types of buildings their origin should not be sought in a request of the owner, nor in reference to a specific client or activities that were conducted in the respective buildings, nor in relation to the freemasonry. Until now no written references (commands, guidelines ..) have been found. The recognizable uniformity in the diversity of signs also shows they are not brands, clan symbols, or signatures of the bricklayer himself. Only in secondary order, there are a few signs with similar specific details that might point to the same performer(s) but are no signatures in itself.
Searching for the meaning of masonry signs, their (estimated) age seems to be relevant. Although one recognizes local trends, further information about the nature of the building or the client prove in most cases to be irrelevant.

Ever since bricks were used one notices a search for masonry links, stone sizes, combinations of brick and stone, brick and timber framing. Yet builders wanted to add something to larger brick areas.Very often diamond shapes in different variants were used. In
Britain this is referred to as diaper patterning or Tudor Brickwork. These patterns are mainly found in brick castles in Poland (Zamec), in France (Châteaux, Manoirs, Colombiers) and in England (Palaces, Halls and Manors). The use of these wall-filling compositions also in smaller surfaces en the combination with seperate signs shows that apotropaic (conjuring-protective) purposes as we shall see it in separate brick signs are present. Especially In England and France there is an evolution in the accuracy of the implementation which improves that the aesthetic component increases.

In the first brick character period (ca. 1200-1500) the most common separate brick-signs aresaltire crosses, diamonds and Calvary-crosses, and further, be it more exceptionally: odal figure, Hexagram, chalice, strike-a-light, life-tree and tower. In the group of individual characters it is difficult to find two identical characters. Shape or size differs or parts are added. The mason produces a creative interpretation of a symbol arsenal that seems to belong to the collective memory.

Saltire crosses and odal-figures also occurred in the (on the mainland mainly oral) Celtic culture. As long as reading and writing weren’t reserved for the common people, the elements of the oral culture were passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately this tradition is long gone. To us the signs seem cryptic. Unlike our ancestors we tend to make the link with written symbols, trying to find a clear and definite meaning for each character, as univocal as graphemes. Since there seems to be no defined meaning for these masonry characters, the signs get an extra dimension of magic and mystery.
saltire cross is an old sign that was Christianized through the St. Andrew's cross, however, with preservation of its meaning: an apotropaic reference to donation, inheritance, fertility. The diamond also occurred in the Celtic runes and had a similar meaning as the saltire cross, but with an emphasis on fertility.
Christian cross on the other hand is the outstanding symbol to ask for protection. It almost always has a triangular base, a reference to Calvary. In this period masonry characters appear significantly more irregular or in asymmetrical areas. The spirits and unknown forces of nature for which they were meant, would undoubtedly see them!
From about 1500 to about 1700 there’s an evolution towards more declarative characters. There is the emergence of hearts (1500) and dates (1600) and further on but rather rare, the use of letters. It seems logical that during this period the marks occur significantly more on street-oriented facades. In the individual characters one recognizes a Christianization of the supposedly pagan symbols. The apotropaic character, however, remains. The most common signs are hearts, magic knots, Calvary-crosses and - exceptionally - filled chalices and heat strokes. The period coincides with an intense revival of the worship of the Sacred Heart of Christ, to which the heart is a clear reference. This can be seen in the variants with one or two oblique lines (lances or arrows) that pierce the heart. In fact the heart gets a similar meaning as the cross: Lord save us!. Secondary, this also means that the heart is a typical Catholic sign that only appears in Catholic regions and not in Protestant. Magic knots are diamond shapes that are stacked into a cross form. They are commonly known as shielding disasters. But in a society where faith still wanted to get a firmer grip on pagan expressions, this was a great compromise. For those wanting to see a cross, it was there; for others it was a composition formed by a continuous infinite immortal line.

Filled cups are in my opinion a (local) character specifically directed against witches. A strike-a-light was a tool to create sparks, necessary to light a fire. Accordingly they were known as a symbol for protection against lightning.

After about 1700 (in the Protestant Netherlands, even after 1650) the traditional masonry signs disappear. In the non-Protestant regions there is a transition to neo-characters. Although they appear quite common, they are especially popular in regions like West and French Flanders. New compositions are made ​​of old characters in which the composition in itself is more important and the significance fades further away. The apotropaic aspect remains latent. The search for extra protection against evil is indeed never far away in uncertain times. But the number of cases where the builder just wants to tell something increases: initials of names, dates, hearts that probably have a more extended meaning. The characters now only appear in street-oriented facades. In rural Catholic regions one sees with the reduction of masonry wall signs an explosive growth of wall chapels usually addressed to Mary, Joseph or some other saints. The approach modifies but the intrinsic intentions remain the same. Didn’t (grand) mother hit a cross on the bread with the point of her knife before cutting it?

The analysis of the common brick signs clearly shows how our ancestors balanced on the line between aesthetics and a creative apotropaic reflex. In times where people often felt at the mercy of unexplained natural phenomena and unknown diseases, and where threats of war always lurked around the corner, begging on all possible resources for help and protection was a current behaviour. You could also recognize it in forgotten habits of putting times-crosses on wall anchors, signs on rooftops made by tiles of different colours, signs painted on barn walls with chalk, the placement of Sedum Maius (garlic) on rooftops as a defence against lightning….

Yet, masonry characters always remain mysterious and intriguing. Lord, save us from harm!