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‘A Course of Severe and Arduous Trials’

Bacon, Beckett and Spurious Freemasonry in Early Twentieth-Century Ireland

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Lynn Brunet

The artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and the writer Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) both convey in their work a sense of foreboding and confinement in bleak, ritualistic spaces. This book identifies many similarities between the spaces and activities they evoke and the initiatory practices of fraternal orders and secret societies that were an integral part of the social landscape of the Ireland experienced by both men during childhood.
Many of these Irish societies modelled their ritual structures and symbolism on the Masonic Order. Freemasons use the term ‘spurious Freemasonry’ to designate those rituals not sanctioned by the Grand Lodge. The Masonic author Albert Mackey argues that the spurious forms were those derived from the various cult practices of the classical world and describes these initiatory practices as ‘a course of severe and arduous trials’. This reading of Bacon’s and Beckett’s work draws on theories of trauma to suggest that there may be a disturbing link between Bacon’s stark imagery, Beckett’s obscure performances and the unofficial use of Masonic rites.

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Chapter One Francis Bacon, Royal Arch Rites and the ‘Passing of the Veils’ 13

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Chapter One Francis Bacon, Royal Arch Rites and the ‘Passing of the Veils’ When they first appeared in public the paintings of Francis Bacon were regarded as some of the most disturbing images to have come out of the twentieth century. Terms such as ‘sinister’, ‘alarming’, ‘violent’ and ‘nightmarish’ accompanied their initial reception.1 While his audiences may have grown familiar with them their stark subject matter still has the power to disturb; they remain uneasy pictures, sometimes conjuring an inexplicable discomfort in the viewer.2 Many of Bacon’s images are highly ritualistic and he has even been described as a religious artist, though he espoused a staunch atheism.3 This disparity between the artist’s atheism and the presence of both religious and ritualistic themes in his paintings has remained one of the more intriguing aspects of the artist’s work. Commenting on this disparity Michael Peppiatt states, ‘[it] is as though Bacon were doomed to officiate as a religious artist in a world where he and his public had lost all faith’.4 Many critics and commentators on Bacon’s work have noted that his images are difficult to interpret. The artist himself, as Martin Harrison observes, ‘[refused] to interpret his paintings, he claimed not to know what they meant himself … Neither would he discuss his subconscious impulses or the psycho-sexual analysis of his paintings’.5 When asked about the sources of his paintings Bacon repeatedly claimed that there was no literal meaning, no story that he was trying to tell, but that the images represented...

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