THERE IS no one of the symbols of Speculative Masonry more important in its teachings, or more interesting in its history, than the lambskin apron, or white leather apron.
Commencing its lessons at an early period in the Mason’s progress, it is impressed upon his memory as the first gift which he receives, the first symbol which is explained to him, and the first tangible evidence which he possesses of his admission into the Fraternity.
Whatever may be his future advancement in the “royal art,” into whatsoever deeper arcane his devotion to the mystic Institution or his thirst for knowledge may subsequently lead him, with the lambskin apron — his first investiture – he never parts.
Changing, perhaps, its form and its decorations, and conveying, at each step, some new but still beautiful allusion, its substance is still there, and it continues to claim the honored title by which it was first made known to him, on the night of his initiation, as the “badge of a Mason.”
If in less important portions of our ritual there are abundant allusions to the manners and customs of the ancient world, it is not to be supposed that the Masonic Rite of investiture — the ceremony of clothing the newly initiated candidate with this distinctive badge of his profession – is without its archetype in the times and practices long passed away.
It would, indeed, be strange, while all else in Masonry is covered with the veil of antiquity, that the apron alone, its most significant symbol, should be indebted for its existence to the invention of the modern mind.
On the contrary, we shall find the most satisfactory evidence that the use of the apron, or some equivalent mode of investiture, as a mystic symbol, was common to all the nations of the earth from the earliest periods.
Among the Israelites the girdle formed a part of the investiture of the priesthood. In the mysteries of Mithras, in Persia, the candidate was invested with a white apron. In the initiations practiced in Hindostan, the ceremony of investiture was preserved, but a sash, called a sacred zennar, was substituted for the apron. The Jewish sect of the Essenes clothes their novices with a white robe.
The celebrated traveler Kempfer informs us that the Japanese, who practice certain rites of initiation, invest their candidates with a white apron, bound round the loins with a zone or girdle. In the Scandinavian Rites, the military genius of the people caused them to substitute a white shield, but its presentation was accompanied by an emblematic instruction not unlike that which is connected with the Mason’s apron.
“The apron,” said Dr. Oliver “appears to have been, in ancient times, an honorary badge of distinction. In the Jewish economy, none but the superior orders of the priesthood were permitted to adorn themselves with ornamented Girdles, which were made of blue, purple, and crimson, decorated with gold, upon a ground of fine white linen; while the inferior priest wore only plain white.”
“The Indian, the Persian, the Jewish, the Ethiopian, and the Egyptian aprons, though equally superb,” he continued, “all bore a character distinct from each other. Some were plain white, others striped with blue, purple and crimson; some were of wrought gold, others adorned and decorated with superb tassels and fringes.”
“In a word, though the principal honor of the Apron may consist in its reference to innocence of conduct and purity of heart, yet it certainly appears, through all ages, to have been a most exalted badge of distinction.”
“In primitive times,” he furthered, “it was rather an ecclesiastical than a civil decoration, although in some cases the Apron was elevated to great superiority as a national trophy.”
“The Royal Standard of Persia,” he said, “was originally an apron in form and dimensions. At this day, it is connected with ecclesiastical honors; for the chief dignitaries of the Christian church, wherever a legitimate establishment, with the necessary degrees of rank and subordination is formed, are invested with Aprons as a peculiar badge of distinction; which is a collateral proof of the fact that Masonry was originally incorporated with the various systems of divine worship used by every people in the ancient world.”
“Masonry retains the symbol or shadow; it cannot have renounced the reality or substance.”
In the Masonic apron, two things are essential to the due preservation of its symbolic character: its color and its material.
As to its color – The color of a Mason’s apron should be pure unspotted white. This color has, in all ages and countries, been esteemed an emblem of innocence and purity. It was with this reference that a portion of the vestments of the Jewish priesthood was directed to be white.
In the Ancient Mysteries the candidate was always clothed in white. “The priests of the Romans,” says Festus, “were accustomed to wear white garments when they sacrificed.”
In the Scandinavian Rites it has been seen that the shield presented to the candidate was white. The Druids changed the color of the garment presented to their initiates with each degree; white, however, was the color appropriated to the last, or degree of perfection. And it was, according to their ritual, intended to teach the aspirant that none were admitted to that honor but such as were cleansed from all impurities both of body and mind.
In the early ages of the Christian church, a white garment was always placed upon the catechumen who had been newly baptized, to denote that he had been cleansed from his former sins, and was thenceforth to lead a life of purity.
Hence it was presented to him with this solemn charge:
“Receive the white and undefiled garment, and produce it unspotted before the tribunal of the Lord Jesus Christ, that you may obtain eternal life.”
From all these instances we learn that white apparel was anciently used as an emblem of purity and for this reason the color has been preserved in the apron of the Freemason.
As to its material — A Mason’s apron must be made of lambskin. No other substance, such as linen, silk, or satin, could be substituted without entirely destroying the emblematic character of the apron, for the material of the Mason’s apron constitutes one of the most important symbols of his profession.
The lamb has always been considered as an appropriate emblem of innocence. And hence we are taught in the ritual of the First Degree, that, “by the lambskin, the Mason is reminded of that purity of life and rectitude of conduct which is so essentially necessary to his gaining admission into the Celestial Lodge above, where the Supreme Architect of the Universe forever presides.”
The true apron of a Mason must, then, be of unspotted lambskin, from 14 to 16 inches wide, from 12 to 14 deep, with a fall about 3 or 4 inches deep, square at the bottom, and without device or ornament of any kind.
The usage of the Craft in the United States of America has, for a few years past, allowed a narrow edging of blue ribbon in the symbolic degrees, to denote the universal friendship which constitutes the bond of the society, and of which virtue blue is the Masonic emblem. But this undoubtedly is an innovation, for the ancient apron was without any edging or ornament.
In the Royal Arch Degree the lambskin is, of course, continued to be used, but, according to the same modern custom, there is an edging of red, to denote the zeal and fervency which should distinguish the possessors of that degree.
All extraneous ornaments and devices are in bad taste, and detract from the symbolic character of the investiture. But the silk or satin aprons, bespangled and painted and embroidered, which have been gradually creeping into our Lodges, have no sort of connection with Ancient Craft Masonry.
They are an innovation of our French brethren, who are never pleased with simplicity, and have, by their love of tinsel, in their various newly invented ceremonies, effaced many of the most beautiful and impressive symbols of our Institution.
A Mason who understands and appreciates the true symbolic meaning of his apron, would no more tolerate a painted or embroidered satin one, as an artist would a gilded statue.
By him, the lambskin, and the lambskin alone, would be considered as the badge “more ancient than the Golden Fleece, or Roman Eagle, and more honorable than the Star and Garter.”