As the hungry artist eyed one of his last dollar bills, he wondered how much bread and balogna he might buy.
This thought vanished in an instant as Robert Hieronimus focused on the money. For the first time, he actually studied the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States, which appears on the back of $1 bills.
“I was familiar with the Great Seal’s obverse or eagle side, but that day the symbols on the seal’s reverse captured my attention and filled me with wonder,” Hieronimus said about the moment in 1966 that started him on a decades-long quest of discovery.
“I saw this pyramid and the eye in a triangle above it and wondered where something like that came from. I had never heard anyone talk about it.
“So I did what I thought a researcher would do and I contacted the State Department to ask about it. They sent me a full-color folder on the seal’s obverse that made no mention of the other side.”
Hieronimus made another inquiry and was sent a photograph of the seal’s reverse with no explanation. He said he later figured out that he didn’t get an explanation because those he contacted “honestly” didn’t know the answers to his questions.
With his curiosity piqued, the Baltimore painter set out to discover what the symbolism meant. Some 40 years later, his search has resulted in the just published book, cowritten by Laura Cortner, “Founding Fathers, Secret Societies: Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucians and the Decoding of the Great Seal.”
Hieronimus is one of the participating writers in the upcoming Virginia Festival of the Book, which will be held at various venues in Charlottesville from March 22 to March 26. He will be discussing his book 6 p.m. March 22 in the McIntire Room of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.
Kay Allison, owner of Quest Bookshop in Charlottesville, was instrumental in getting Hieronimus to attend the 12th annual edition of the festival.
“We had been selling Bob Hieronimus’ book ‘America’s Secret Destiny’ for a number of years,” Allison said. “He is a valid researcher and his new work is a powerful book.
“It’s difficult to describe the book and do it justice, because it contains so much information. It is an unfolding mystery of the spiritual vision of the founders of our nation.
“By decoding our national symbols and documents, especially the Great Seal, he shows the power of symbols as a blueprint for the unique possibilities for the secret destiny of America. I am so pleased to have this remarkable book and to have him coming to lecture.”
One of Hieronimus’ first discoveries, as he worked to uncover the meaning and symbolism of the seal, was the need to separate fact from theories. Symbolism often encourages speculation, and he found a lot of theories were conjectural with little, if any, basis in fact.
“Researching the Great Seal, or any type of symbol, gets you to sources and research not well documented,” Hieronimus said. “There are a lot of theories out there that are fascinating, such as the founding fathers were all secret members of the Freemasons and the symbols we find on the Great Seal are all based on their membership.
“Some researchers say 50 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemason members. In fact, there are nine that can be documented. I spent three or four years wading through this kind of research.
“Yes, some of the founding fathers were members of secret societies such as Freemasons. But the difficult thing about secret societies is that so much is hidden because it’s not written down.”
What the author said he ultimately discovered was the existence of a spiritual side to this nation, a destiny that the founding fathers were acutely aware of. He believes they tapped into what Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung later came to call the collective unconscious.
“When you look at the reverse of the seal, you see these two ancient components - the pyramid and the eye in the triangle,” Hieronimus said during a recent telephone interview from his Maryland home. “The eye in the triangle has been the symbol for the sun for thousands of years.
“The pyramid comes from the symbol for mountain. So what you have is a very interesting relationship between the spirit coming together with matter, which is the sun over the mountain. It’s the coming together of this spiritual aspect and the physical aspect that really tells the story of us.
“I believe the founding fathers were telling us that there are two components to every human being on this planet. One component is mortal and physical, and the other is immortal and spiritual.”
Hieronimus concludes that the seal’s reverse expresses the vision of self-transformation. He believes the seal’s reverse could foretell the coming of a new paradigm that would advance the evolution of the human race.
The Latin words, “Annuit Coeptis,” above the eye in the triangle, mean “God favors this process.” Below the pyramid the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum” translate to “new order of the ages.”
Hieronimus points to these two mottos as evidence that the evolutionary development of the human species will be a positive thing. He also believes that while a number of the nation’s architects were members of secret societies and these societies influenced their thinking and actions, it was for the better.
“When I contacted other historians, many of them totally dismissed the idea that secret societies had any influence on the founding fathers,” said Hieronimus, who hosts a nationally broadcasted radio show called “21st-Century Radio,” which deals with new paradigm and metaphysical subjects.
“As far as they were concerned, secret societies were just a bunch of Shriners riding around in little cars. Sure, they did some nice things philanthropically, but … there weren’t any real important secrets with these secret societies.
“I think that’s a big error. What I found so exciting about all this is that somehow the founding fathers knew there was something else going on on the planet besides their physical body.”
The father of three dedicated an entire chapter in his new book to the history and creation of the Great Seal. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and others were on the committee that, after much thought, came up with the design.
The author relates both the facts about the history of the seal, as well as an interesting, but likely apocryphal, story related to it. The unsubstantiated account says Jefferson had spent an entire day and part of an evening thinking about design ideas for the seal.
Stymied, the future president is said to have gone outside to clear his head and was approached by a man wearing a black cloak and hood that obscured his features. The man told Jefferson that he knew they were trying to come up with a seal for the new country, and he handed him a design he felt was “appropriate and meaningful.”
The story says Jefferson rushed back into the house shouting, “I have it. I have it.” In his hands were the rough outlines for the Great Seal. The mysterious man was never seen again.
Hieronimus said during his years of research he learned about another “tremendously important” contribution to the fledgling nation that’s based on fact. He refers to the influence that the League of the Iroquois Indians had on the Constitution of the United States.
When the league was founded continues to be disputed. Some historians place its origin as far back as 1100, and others as recently as 1450. What is generally agreed upon is that the six Indian tribes from the northeastern part of what became the United States formed the league to promote peace and human rights.
What Hieronimus found particularly remarkable was that these tribes of once warring enemies came together and hammered out a constitution they called “The Great Law of Peace.” In it, leaders were regarded as servants of the people, not masters, and could be stripped of power if they misused it.
The constitution also upheld freedom of expression, even in political and religious matters. It forbade things such as the unauthorized entry of homes and the exclusion of women from participation in political matters.
“Native Americans didn’t write our Constitution or our Declaration of Independence, but they influenced them,” Hieronimus said. “That, in my opinion, is far more important than most of the other research I did on this particular subject, because it can be documented to the hilt.”
Hieronimus is putting in long hours painting a symbolism-rich mural on his 1983 Mercedes SD sedan, which is patterned after the theme of his new book. Included among his mural works are “The Apocalypse” and “The Lord’s Prayer” at Johns Hopkins University.
Perhaps the artist’s most famous mural was on the so-called “Woodstock bus,” which first gained recognition at the Woodstock rock festival in 1969. A photograph of the flashy Volkswagen van helped illustrate the Sept. 20, 1969, story in Rolling Stone magazine that covered the legendary festival.
“I learned back in the late 1960s that if you have ideas you want to get out, and the media isn’t open to them, the best thing to do was to paint it on anything you could,” Hieronimus said. “That’s how I ended up doing the two murals at Johns Hopkins.
“My purpose in painting cars is to teach. People would look at my work and say, ‘That’s psychedelic,’ and I would say, ‘No, there’s a story there.’ ”
Hieronimus said his most recent story on the founding fathers and secret societies is garnering attention that he is not used to. He credits at least some of the attention to the ongoing popularity of Dan Brown’s book “The DaVinci Code.”
“There are definitely some very important things within ‘The DaVinci Code,’ but it’s not meant to be scholarly and accurate,” said the 62-year-old artist, historian and author. “It’s entertainment.
“One of the key things I hope to get across in my book is that our founding fathers were inspired, maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously. Jefferson, who I consider one of the greatest souls to ever hit this planet, knew all about the architecture of the ancients, various formulas and why they did what they did.
“I believe if he, and the other founding fathers, knew about such things it would certainly influence their thinking and, in fact, did.”