Symbolism of the Winding Staircase



By Brother Martin Jansen van Vuuren
17 January 2013




Right Worshipful, Very Worshipful, Worshipful and Brethren All


My chosen topic for this paper is the symbolism of the winding staircase which plays a prominent role in the Fellowcraft degree ritual of our sister constitutions.

My research into this topic has shown that the prominence of the winding staircase has sprung from a single mention in the old translation of the Bible when describing the Temple of King Solomon i.e First Kings, Chapter 6, Verse 8 which states: “The door for the middle chamber was in the right side of the house; and they went up with winding stairs into the middle chamber and out of the middle into the third.” Or “And they went up the winding stairs into the middle chamber.” Depending on which translation is being read.

This description is surrounded with controversy as some scholars believe that the original text was not correctly translated and that the winding stairs were not stairs at all. Some scholars suggest that the original text actually refers to trap doors that were used by workmen to access side chambers built into the thickness of the walls from the first and second levels. These side chambers were used, while the Temple was being built, for the purpose of paying the workmen their wages. Later, they were used as store-houses or treasury rooms of the Temple into which the treasures and gifts to the Temple were placed.

Be it as it may, in Masonic ritual of our sister constitutions, the winding staircase is incorporated in the Fellowcraft Degree where the Fellowcraft are conducted symbolically through a porch, up a flight of winding stairs consisting of three, five, and seven steps, through an outer and inner door, into a place representing the Middle Chamber of King Solomon’s Temple. In the middle chamber the wages of a Fellowcraft is earned.

Much has been written about the meaning of the three, five and seven steps and although this is not the main focus of this paper, I will briefly mention the related symbolism.

The first three steps of the winding staircase allude to the Three Great Lights in the Craft being, the Volume of the Sacred Law, Square and Compasses. It also alludes to the three principal officers of the Lodge, being the Worshipful Master, Senior and Junior Wardens, who represent the three great supports of Masonry: Wisdom, Strength and Beauty.

The five steps allude to the five orders of architecture namely Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite. It also allude to the five human senses being Hearing, Seeing, Feeling, Smelling and Tasting.

The seven steps allude to the seven liberal arts and sciences, which are: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy.

It is also worth noting that the number of steps has changed over the years. Sometimes there were only five and at others seven. Preston had thirty-six steps in his Winding Stairs; in series of one, three, five, seven, nine and eleven. The English system later eliminated the number eleven from Preston’s thirty-six, reducing it to twenty-five. However, American Masonry has kept to fifteen.

What I did find interesting from my research was to learn that even ancient masons always built their stairs with an odd number of steps, so that, starting with the right foot at the bottom the climber might enter the sacred place at the top with the same foot in advance. This correlates to Masonic ritual where Masons finish with the same foot that they step off with.

As mentioned, the symbolism related to these steps warrants a paper on its own, but I would rather focus on a less discussed aspect of the winding staircase.

My question is what is the significance of a winding staircase? Why is it not a straight staircase? Both could have three, five and seven steps and both could ascend to the middle chamber. The question then, why winding?

The first aspect to investigate is that the word winding does not necessarily mean a spiral. Many people immediately think of a spiral staircase when a winding staircase is mentioned. It was actually the Quarterly Newsletter of the Australian & New Zealand Masonic Research Council which the Worshipful Master so kindly distribute to us that made me think of this distinction. On the letter head of the newsletter is a picture of a winding staircase which start with the three steps, veers the left with the five steps and then veers to the right with the seven steps to reach the middle chamber.  The staircase is by no means spiral, but is indeed winding.

To further investigate the potential symbolism I turned to the seven liberal arts and sciences to see if I could apply these arts and sciences to gauge some insight (or more light if you will).

Let’s start with geometry as it plays such an important role in the Fellow Craft Degree.  In geometry a spiral is a curve which emanates from a central point, getting progressively farther away as it revolves around the point.  This is similarly true for a winding staircase which progressively moves further and wider away from its origin.

Is this not a perfect allegory for the how we search for knowledge?  We start with a narrow view point and as we gain knowledge we expand and grow our view point?  We start with a little bit of knowledge on a subject and progressively expand our knowledge and insight to that subject.

Also, as the staircase is winding it is moving upward.  It is not moving to the East, West, North or South, but is moving upward.  A straight staircase would be moving in a particular direction as well as moving upward.  With a winding staircase the movement is only upward without moving in a particular horizontal direction.

Could this be a symbol of the quest for a higher level of knowledge? The need to make good men better?  To continuously expand our understanding and knowledge by forever journeying upward toward the light?

The reason for the winding staircase may also be to conceal the destination.  With a straight staircase the destination is visible at the top of the stairs.  With a winding staircase, each step needs to be taken without knowing what is around the next corner.

Is it not a symbol of the journey of life itself?  We need to travel the journey of life without knowing what dangers or delights await us.

Also, does each step not need to be taken in order to progress? Does each lesson not need to be learnt before we can ascend to a higher level of knowledge? Think about the meaning of the three, five and seven steps.  Do we not need to understand the Three Great Lights before we can understand what the five orders of architecture could teach us?  Do we need to understand the these steps before we can progress to the seven liberal arts and sciences?

From a logic point of view it holds that a winding staircase would be stronger than a straight one. A winding staircase is built around a central access and can ascend much higher than a straight staircase. The strength of a winding structure rather than a straight structure can even be seen in nature with for example the shape of a sea shell.  The winding shape is even encoded in us when looking at the shape of a DNA helix.

During my entered apprentice degree I presented a paper on circumambulation.  In the paper I indicated that one of the meanings of circumambulation to me was that when a man revisits and circumambulate a topic, he sees the topic from a different viewpoint and gain new insights. With a winding staircase, circumambulation is possible, while also gaining the perspective of height. Would this not provide even more insight by providing a new dimension to your perspective? We are not only viewing a topic in a horizontal dimension, but also in a vertical one. I can relates this the liberal art and science of arithmetic as its adds another perspective.

Brethren, I have already addressed three of the seven liberal arts and sciences namely geometry, logic and arithmetic. I must confess that I would need more time to study the other liberal arts and sciences in order to provide a coherent investigation into the answers that they may provide to this topic.

In my limited knowledge of these liberal arts and sciences I could however venture the following:

When pertaining to music, would a winding staircase not provide the listener with a different experience of the music than a straight staircase? May the music not echo through the winding staircase? May new notes not be heard as the listener ascend the winding staircase and move his head and ears about?  Similarly, existing notes may be heard in a whole new way?

As for astronomy, is the shape of many galaxies not similar to a spiral or winding shape? Perhaps the first mason of a winding staircase took his inspiration from the heavens?

As for the remaining liberal arts and sciences, I can only say that I hope my grammar during this presentation was correct, given that English is not my first language and I hope that my rhetoric has made the brethren think about this topic.

Brethren, I would like to leave you with quote in the guide to the Fellowcraft “the beauty of a symbol is its universality; its core is the same for all, its approach different for each”.

Brethren, I have ventured my opinion on the interpretation of the winding staircase.  I urge brethren to think about how they would interpret the winding staircase.


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