The Symbolism of the Gloves

    Albert Gallatin Mackey
    The investiture with the gloves is very closely connected with the investiture with the apron, and
    the consideration of the symbolism of the one naturally follows the consideration of the
    symbolism of the other.
    In the continental rites of Masonry, as practiced in France, in Germany, and in other countries of
    Europe, it is an invariable custom to present the newly-initiated candidate not only, as we do,
    with a white leather apron, but also with two pairs of white kid gloves, one a man's pair for
    himself, and the other a woman's, to be presented by him in turn to his wife or his betrothed,
    according to the custom of the German masons, or, according to the French, to the female whom
    he most esteems, which, indeed, amounts, or should amount, to the same thing.
    There is in this, of course, as there is in everything else which pertains to Freemasonry, a
    symbolism. The gloves given to the candidate for himself are intended to teach him that the acts
    of a mason should be as pure and spotless as the gloves now given to him. In the German lodges,
    the word used for acts is of course handlungen, or handlings, "the works of his hands," which
    makes the symbolic idea more impressive.
    Dr. Robert Plott--no friend of Masonry, but still an historian of much research--says, in his
    "Natural History of Staffordshire," that the Society of Freemasons, in his time (and he wrote in
    1660), presented their candidates with gloves for themselves and their wives. This shows that the
    custom still preserved on the continent of Europe was formerly practiced in England, although
    there as well as in America, it is discontinued, which is, perhaps, to be regretted.
    But although the presentation of the gloves to the candidate is no longer practiced as a ceremony
    in England or America, yet the use of them as a part of the proper professional clothing of a
    mason in the duties of the lodge, or in processions, is still retained, and in many well-regulated
    lodges the members are almost as regularly clothed in their white gloves as in their white aprons.
    The symbolism of the gloves, it will be admitted, is, in fact, but a modification of that of the
    apron. They both signify the same thing; both are allusive to a purification of life. "Who shall
    ascend," says the Psalmist, "into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He
    that hath clean hands and a pure heart." The apron may be said to refer to the "pure heart," the
    gloves to the "clean hands." Both are significant of purification--of that purification which was
    always symbolized by the ablution which preceded the ancient initiations into the sacred
    Mysteries. But while our American and English masons have adhered only to the apron, and
    rejected the gloves as a Masonic symbol, the latter appear to be far more important in symbolic
    science, because the allusions to pure or clean hands are abundant in all the ancient writers.
    "Hands," says Wemyss, in his "Clavis Symbolica," "are the symbols of human actions; pure
    hands are pure actions; unjust hands are deeds of injustice." There are numerous references in
    sacred and profane writers to this symbolism. The washing of the hands has the outward sign of
    an internal purification. Hence the Psalmist says, "I will wash my hands in innocence, and I will
    encompass thine altar, Jehovah."
    In the ancient Mysteries the washing of the hands was always an introductory ceremony to the
    initiation, and, of course, it was used symbolically to indicate the necessity of purity from crime
    as a qualification of those who sought admission into the sacred rites; and hence on a temple in
    the Island of Crete this inscription was placed: "Cleanse your feet, wash your hands, and then
    Indeed, the washing of hands, as symbolic of purity, was among the ancients a peculiarly
    religious rite. No one dared to pray to the gods until he had cleansed his hands. Thus Homer
    makes Hector say,--
    [Greek: "Chersi\ d' a)ni/Ptoisin Dii\+lei/bein A(\zomai." --Iliad,
    "I dread with unwashed hands to bring My incensed wine to Jove an offering."
    In a similar spirit of religion, Æneas, when leaving burning Troy, refuses to enter the temple of
    Ceres until his hands, polluted by recent strife, had been washed in the living stream.
    "Me bello e tanto digressum et cæde recenti,
    Attrectare nefas, donec me flumine vivo
    "In me, now fresh from war and recent strife,
    'T is impious the sacred things to touch
    Till in the living stream myself I bathe."
    The same practice prevailed among the Jews, and a striking instance of the symbolism is
    exhibited in that well-known action of Pilate, who, when the Jews clamored for Jesus, that they
    might crucify him, appeared before the people, and, having taken water, washed his hands,
    saying at the same time, "I am innocent of the blood of this just man. See ye to it." In the
    Christian church of the middle ages, gloves were always worn by bishops or priests when in the
    performance of ecclesiastical functions. They were made of linen, and were white; and
    Durandus, a celebrated Ritualist, says that "by the white gloves were denoted chastity and purity,
    because the hands were thus kept clean and free from all impurity."
    There is no necessity to extend examples any further. There is no doubt that the use of the gloves
    in Masonry is a symbolic idea borrowed from the ancient and universal language of symbolism,
    and was intended, like the apron, to denote the necessity of purity of life.
    We have thus traced the gloves and the apron to the same symbolic source. Let us see if we
    cannot also derive them from the same historic origin.
    The apron evidently owes its adoption in Freemasonry to the use of that necessary garment by
    the operative masons of the middle ages. It is one of the most positive evidences--indeed we may
    say, absolutely, the most tangible evidence--of the derivation of our speculative science from an
    operative art. The builders, who associated in companies, who traversed Europe, and were
    engaged in the construction of palaces and cathedrals, have left to us, as their descendants, their
    name, their technical language, and that distinctive piece of clothing by which they protected
    their garments from the pollutions of their laborious employment. Did they also bequeath to us
    their gloves? This is a question which some modern discoveries will at last enable us to solve.
    M. Didron, in his "Annales Archeologiques," presents us with an engraving, copied from the
    painted glass of a window in the cathedral of Chartres, in France. The painting was executed in
    the thirteenth century, and represents a number of operative masons at work. Three of them are
    adorned with laurel crowns. May not these be intended to represent the three officers of a lodge?
    All of the Masons wear gloves. M. Didron remarks that in the old documents which he has
    examined, mention is often made of gloves which are intended to be presented to masons and
    stone-cutters. In a subsequent number of the "Annales," he gives the following three examples of
    this fact:--
    In the year 1331, the Chatelan of Villaines, in Duemois, bought a considerable quantity of
    gloves, to be given to the workmen, in order, as it is said, "to shield their hands from the stone
    and lime." In October, 1383, as he learns from a document of that period, three dozen pairs of
    gloves were bought and distributed to the masons when they commenced the buildings at the
    Chartreuse of Dijon.
    And, lastly, in 1486 or 1487, twenty-two pair of gloves was given to the masons and stonecutters
    who were engaged in work at the city of Amiens.
    It is thus evident that the builders--the operative masons--of the Middle Ages wore gloves to
    protect their hands from the effects of their work. It is equally evident that the speculative
    masons have received from their operative predecessors the gloves as well as the apron, both of
    which, being used by the latter for practical uses, have been, in the spirit of symbolism,
    appropriated by the former to "a more noble and glorious purpose."