There are many ways to achieve immortality.
And one is working with stone.
Stone has a permanency. Look at Stonehenge. There’s no moving that set of entrenched monoliths, thank you. They’re here to stay, and have been for the last four thousand years and some. Their makers are anonymous, yet their work fascinates and entices us because we have not the foggiest idea what they meant by it.
Stone has a permanence. And as the millennia have worn on, the material has not lost its momentousness.
The men who worked it, in mediaeval times, were a special breed. Unlike blacksmiths and bakers, they could not live their lives in one place. They wandered from project to project, carrying out stonework where it was needed, when it was needed.
A mason – according to a rather wonderful local history book I stumbled upon by FW Brooks – would arrive at a cathedral or an abbey asking for work, and their first port of call would be the mason’s lodge. He might have tools; he might not, if times had been hard and he had been forced to sell them. He would prove his identity by knocking in a prescribed way, and answering a ritual set of questions.
And if he was lucky, the Master-Mason might set him on plain ‘walling’ with a few simple mouldings, to test his mettle.
Each piece he cut, he would put his own mark on the stone. And the Master Mason could check it, and if it was good the mason might gain advancement to more complicated work.
Mason’s marks have been found all over Britain: in all the key mediaeval bastions of stone. They are little geometric doodles generally, or a variation on a ‘W’. An identity, which would have been very important to an itinerant craftsman.
Some, however, went further.
The oldest part of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is the Divinity School – you know, the room used as the infirmary in the Harry Potter films. If you are wise, as well as looking around, you will look upwards: for there lies some of the most stunning stonework you will ever see.
But glance to the top of the wall, and you will see the strangest figure clambering up over the border of the ceiling, at the top of the wall:
The impudence of a mason who simply cannot resist bringing this figure in among all the lavish tracery and pageantry of benefactor’s coats of arms! This gesture reminds me so much of the monks who painted bawdy images in the margins of lavishly illustrated commissions for noblemen. Who is this man, dressed humbly, encroaching on all this splendour?
There is no-one to tell his story.
Except for perhaps another mason, in the town of Cirencester .
If you visit the church of St John Baptist, which towers benignly in golden stone over the little town centre, pause as you leave the Chapel of St John The Baptist for the door into the South Porch.
For you are flanked by masons.
On your left is an extraordinary mason’s trace: a lifesize figure – it looks mediaeval – coming straight out of the pillar at you. Most unnerving.
Yet: not as unnerving as the figure on your right side.
For we know him. He left his mark, and a date.He was the Master-Mason of his time. And, to mirror the mason from centuries before, he cut himself into the stone.
A striking figure he looks, with eyes like a hawk’s, cunning and keen. Had I been a mason under his stewardship I should have done exactly, precisely what I was told.
He has answered my question: for I’d wager the little figure at the Bodleian was a mason too.
How many masons are there, across these islands, emerging eternally from the stone they crafted?