To Shape a Stone, To Keep a Secret: A Letter by the Curator Nato Thompson

“A secret is powerful when it is empty." – Umberto Eco, The Paris Review (2008)
"Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."– Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanack

A lidded, captivating eye stares out from inside a pyramidal confine with rays of light emanating from its enigmatic gaze. This unflinching retina looks out from a time long lost and its ever pressing vision becomes palpable. What is this strange surveilling image? The All Seeing Eye, or other times referred to as, The Eye of Providence famously resides on the backside of the United States dollar bill. Perhaps more than any other image, it evokes the cryptic and mystical allure of one of the more heralded and rightly critiqued secret societies in world history: The Freemasons. Certainly, like many Masonic images, it is meant to evoke several meanings at once and in their paradox and tensions resides a deeper, historic, meaning. For the eye can be an eye of a supreme being, God, looking over its people and weighing justice. But it can also stand in for an eye without a face, an eye ever watching, without us knowing who it is that is watching us.

Another image: A conical beehive too greets the viewer with its sign of industriousness and insect camaraderie. A homespun insectal abode known for honey now stands like an icon of the teamwork and social networking of a vast group of workers. A longstanding Masonic symbol, the beehive is an architectural honeycombed labyrinthine tower orchestrated by the natural world. Neither biblical nor an industrious tool, the beehive derives from an altogether different order of symbol making.

A final icon: a mason’s square and compass lay over each other forming the shape of yet another triangle. This image certainly evokes the masonic order itself highlighting the tools of architectural geometry. These two tools are identifiable with the early work of the Freemasons, whose skills as masonry allowed them to adorn the facades of churches and bridges across Europe from the 13th to 16th centuries. They are craftsman tools set across each other to form that pyramid, the number three, a triad that could reference either the holy trinity, the power of the geometric pyramid, or perhaps, the three orders of the Masonic degrees of initiation.

The all seeing eye, the beehive and the masons ruler and square from the Apprentice tier of Marco Brambilla's NFT collection, The Orders

The Orders, the hypnotic NFT project by artist Marco Brambilla, explores the captivating iconography of the Masonic tradition and does so by way of the three levels of initiation: Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and Master Mason.  In The Orders, each level offers an opportunity to not only focus on these enigmatic symbols, but to also set them into motion in three distinct manners — from object, to still life to composition. Each arrangement in each degree becomes a study in the meanings of the objects as they are solely displayed, set into conversation with each other and then finally, placed into the realm of time (and thus dissolution and death.)

This artwork spins out of a series of videos equally titled The Orders featuring beehives, chalices, urns, scythes, and hourglasses hovering and rotating out of a deconstructing Temple of Solomon, set against a backdrop of the Watchful Eye. A kaleidoscope of Masonic imagery comes flying out at the viewer and Brambilla’s arrangement takes its cues from the vast, and visually stimulating, fantastical imagery of the Masons.

The Orders, a video work by Marco Brambilla from which the objects represented in his NFT collection by the same name have been culled.

Brambilla often takes cultural artifacts, whether in this case from the Masonic tradition, or in another recent work Heaven’s Gate (2022), from cultural materials from the silver screen of Hollywood to produce Heironymous Bosch-like settings. They are dazzling, eye-popping and full of the found world of imagery we have come to know. Found moving imagery spirals, twirls, gasps and gestures, in an overwhelming array of meanings and implications. The sheer volume of the iconography that Brambilla often deploys leaves the viewer in a state of surplus, of excess, of a gluttony of vision.

Heaven's Gate (2022) by Marco Brambilla

The Orders makes public the visual culture of this long-standing fraternal order whose ranks are as much heralded as critiqued. We are confronted with husks of corn, ladders, a compass, a skull, and many other macabre and prosaic tools and images that allow a unique set of compositions and relationships to emerge that speak to a different sense through which to interpret the world.

By no accident, The Orders transpires in the realm of web3 (the realm of crypto so to speak) where the good, bad, and ugly of secrecy, image making and community are put into a dynamic and sudden set of entanglements. Crypto itself is born in secrecy with the white paper that developed bitcoin, created by a pseudonymous person or persons named Satoshi Nakamoto. Much speculation has transpired as to the true identity of Satoshi, but the fact that a form of currency which develops by way of complex algorithms (or riddles) is founded by a person whose identity has yet to be revealed, only scratches the surface about the connections, and perhaps problems, of two cultures whose modus operandi depends in large part on secrets. Secrets have long been a part of structures that run counter to dominant forms of power and thus, allowing them to produce new forms of power.

In a strange historic mirror, we find a world rich in iconography culled from a variety of cultural influences that unlock, reveal, obscure, misdirect and always offer speculation as to where these meanings are headed and what their intentions are. Without praising this realm of fraternal camaraderie, Brambilla hoists a shrouded mirror full of paradox and tensions, pointing toward a secret society and symbols that are both captivating and chalk full of light and darkness. This artwork isn’t meant to uplift or praise so much as to explore, study, put into conversation. The Masons were a fraternal order often consisting predominantly of white men in power and with that comes a highly problematic, and all too familiar, history that has shaped inequities for millennia.

For Brambilla, however, The Orders focuses on these wild iconographic images that spill out of their vast lore. They are evocative in part due to their motley assemblage of references ranging from actual, hand-in-the-dirt masonry, to Egyptology, to Christianity, to lost gnostic lore. It is this near lack of cultural allegiance to any one symbolic order that hints at a quiet subculture whose spiritual affinities are outside the range of traditional society, and in that, they offer intrigue and many times, apprehension.

The Freemasons emerged in the early 13th century as a guild of stone masons. They were builders to be certain and their handicraft at the construction of cathedrals and bridges were much sought over. The stone masons were well aware of the power of their knowledge and they controlled its dissemination and those that were allowed to gain access to it. Each stage of entry into the order was considered both a spiritual and enlightened step, but perhaps more importantly, a step into the upper ranks of control and power. Thus the guild formed and they used their control of their market to leverage large contracts with the largest employers in the land: the Catholic Church and the various monarchies.

It is during this period that the secrets of geometry, mathematics and early physics, began to take hold. Beyond the church, it appeared that inside the very fabric of the lived world, there was a deeper truth, perhaps even a secret truth. So, with these images of levels, compasses, plumb lines, and trowels, what we are also witnessing is a set of tools that allowed those that could use them to access a truth — a spiritual truth beyond that which the church offered.

Like any guild with its relationship to management, the dynamic was quite fraught and full of struggle. Secrecy became tantamount early on as the church and the monarchy often tried to do away with the Masons in order to open up their corner on their much-needed market. So, to be quite short, a secret society of Masons emerged that developed complex symbols and meanings in order to communicate a different personal, political and perhaps spiritual trajectory. Like any historical relic that lasts over 100 years (let alone 700), the organization itself has mutated, shifted, changed and evolved radically since its more literal and handicraft beginnings. Far from a guild, the Masons evolved into a highly organized secret society of men in power between the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, they have perhaps run their course and play host to lodges and drinking halls in major cities around the world.

For Brambilla, The Orders offers a chance to tear these various symbols out of their Masonic shadowlands, and to place them into digital space.

Totemic, spinning, and curious, each symbol acts as a crucible of meaning (much like a tarot card). They point toward historic and contemporary tensions and also allow us to encounter them in the digital realm.

In the first stage, Entered Apprentice, the focus is on the individual or as the Masons describe it, the rough stone from the quarry. This raw form requires shaping and polishing. The tools that are made available to the initiate are those that allow them to work on themselves, their vices, and their self-control, such as the common gavel and the rough ashlar.

An Apprentice Object from the Apprentice Tier of Marco Brambilla's The Orders

In Brambilla’s The Orders, each object quietly spins alone in solitude. This initial stage is both the object as well as the subject. Hinting at the lone individual, this work allows the viewer to not only consider the object on hand, but what that individual object means in respect to themselves. For the Masons, the initiate works on their own sense of humility and desire for work. Like any organization, the initiates were the grunt workers whose skills were utilized for larger organizational needs. Here we find the core objects of the artwork including: the level, the compass and square, the chalice, and the anchor, among others.

In the second stage, Fellow Craft, the Mason becomes a skilled craftsman and the lessons are geared toward refinement and brotherly love. This emphasis on perfection and camaraderie are what inspire Brambilla’s next phase of The Orders. Here we are introduced to a set of juxtapositions of three objects. Just as in the Masonic tradition, the second stage offers a moment to reflect on collectivity, and in this case, the new meanings develop when three sets of meanings are put into relationship with each other.

A Fellow Craft Still Life from the Fellow Craft Tier of Marco Brambilla's The Orders. These artworks vary in gold, marble, glass and mixed material compositions.

In the final stage, Master Mason, the Fellow Craft is introduced to the trowel. The trowel is a tool that allows the mason to spread cement across the stones and bind them together into a common structure. The trowel is a tool that not only represents the shaping of a collective object, but also a collective object that exists through time. In the final stage of the Masonic levels and particularly in Brambilla’s The Orders, the final stage confronts time itself.

We are confronted with a central floating object with three objects orbiting, deconstructing and reconstructing over time. This final stage emphasizes the existence of time, with its handmaiden’s death and birth as a central figure in the orbiting and movement of these Masonic objects. In the Masonic tradition, the final stage tackles many subjects, but death figures most prominently. The role of a society is to not only care for its members of the now, but for its consideration and construction of a world yet to come. In this final stage, the Masons introduce symbols more cryptic and unnerving such as the skull, the scythe, the hourglass, the heart, the urn, and the sword.

A Master Mason Composition from Marco Brambilla's The Orders

Brambilla makes dazzling use of the already highly fetishized and saturated imagery of the Masons. In keeping with his incredible oeuvre, he deploys the already heavily laden images of our society and throws them back into play in front of us in dazzling, hypnotic arrangements that allow us to see them in a new, and revealing manner. Operatic in scope, this three part arrangement offers an opportunity to consider the vast iconography of this fading, but once powerful, fraternal order. While the meanings are ever in flux, what remains clear as a bell in The Orders, in the Masonic tradition, and crypto-culture in general, is the power, allure, and long-standing resilience of secrecy itself.

Marco Brambilla’s The Orders will be released on Artwrld’s platform in three phases with artworks that evolve in both complexity and rarity. Presale Suites from the collection go on sale from September 12 - 17 which are comprised of nine Apprentice Objects and one Fellow Craft Still Life. On September 19, the Entered Apprentice tier will unlock with a 24-hour open edition mint of Apprentice Objects followed by a limited mint of Fellow Craft Still lifes on September 20. The most distinguished works from the collection, the Master Mason Compositions, are available on an inquiry basis.