Theosophy and the Society in the Public Eye

Understanding the Functions of an Occult Space

Helmut Zander – Germany

[This essay was first published in Masonic and Esoteric Heritage: New Perspectives for Art and Heritage Policies. Proceedings of the First International Conference of the OVN, Foundation for the Advancement of Academic Research into the History of Freemasonry in the Netherlands, October 20-21, 2005. Ed. A. Kroon, M. Bax, J. Snoek. The Hague, Netherlands: OVN Foundation, 2005. It is reproduced here in a revised form.]

Helmut Zander is Privtatdozent for modern history at the Humboldt University in Berlin and is heading a project on the religious topography in Northrhine-Westphalia at the Ruhr University in Bochum.

In the years before World War I, Theosophists of the German Branch of the Theosophical Society Adyar began building rooms and buildings for the celebration of their arcane rites. The most famous edifice of these was the Johannesbau in Dornach (in Switzerland, near Basel). It was officially regarded as a stage for Rudolf Steiner’s mystery plays, as a platform for eurhythmy (which is a Theosophical form of dancing), and as an auditorium for Steiner’s lectures.

However, until recently, the real functions of this building were unknown. These secret functions are the subject of my essay.¹

Theosophy in Germany

The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 in New York by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and William Quan Judge (1851-1896). Four years after arriving in India in 1878, they established their headquarters in Adyar (in Madras, today Chennai). In these first Indian years, they laid down three fundamental principles:

The study of occult science;

The formation of a nucleus of a universal brotherhood; and

The revival of oriental literature and philosophy.²

The occupation with Oriental literature led to a comparative study of religion. These activities were linked with the hope of finding a wisdom-religion behind or in all religions. But Theosophists had not only philological interests. They tried to open ways to the experience of a ‘higher world’. At the end of the 19th century this became an important aspect in Theosophy, especially in its Esoteric School.

In 1902, the German Branch of the Theosophical Society Adyar was founded. The central figure among the German Adyar-Theosophists was Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).³ In his earlier years, he had edited some of Goethe’s scientific writings and had written a doctoral dissertation on Fichte’s theory of knowledge (1892). After a deep personal crisis in his life he turned to Theosophy in 1900. In 1902, he was elected the first General Secretary of the German Branch of the Theosophical Society Adyar. However since 1909, conflicts with the President of the Society, Annie Besant (1847-1933), arose. Finally, differences in opinion on Krishnamurti (1895-1986) who was regarded by Besant as the coming ‘world teacher’, was one among other motives for Steiner to break away and to form his Anthroposophical Society in 1912.

Rudolf Steiner

In his first years as General Secretary, Steiner gave hundreds of lectures and wrote fundamental works on Theosophical topics: Theosophie (1904), a Theosophical anthropology, or Geheimwissenschaft im Umriss [Occult Science – an Outline] (manuscript 1904, published 1909) a cosmology, or Aus der Akasha-Chronik (1904 in Lucifer Gnosis, partly published 1908), texts in which Steiner presented the results of his ‘research-work’ in ‘higher worlds’. At the same time, he sought more tangible means to convey Theosophy. The Mystery Plays, which were performed since 1907, were regarded as an aesthetic application of Theosophical contents. Also eurhythmy, established in 1911, served as a vehicle for this purpose: the ‘spiritual world’ should become present in this form of dancing.

Further, the Esoterische Schule (Esoteric School) played a key role in imparting theosophical ideas. Blavatsky had founded it a few years before her death and Besant converted it into a great organization within the Theosophical Society. Steiner also founded an Esoteric School in his German Section, and was appointed ‘Arch Warden’ by Besant in 1904. He gave meditations in the lower ‘classes’ and wrote a ‘path of discipleship’, published as Wie erlangt man Erkentnisse der hoheren Welten (How to Attain Knowledge of the Higher Worlds) (1904-1905). But in the second and in the third ‘classes’, Masonic ceremonies were celebrated.4 These arcane rites were the centre of activities for the inner circle in the German Section.

Some years earlier, Annie Besant had also started with Masonic activities. Since 1902, she had been a member of the mixed Masonic order Le Droit Humain, where she strongly implanted Theosophical concepts. Steiner chose another way. In 1905, he joined a lodge of Theodor Reuss (1855-1923) and bought a Rite of Memphis-Misraim, which he used to form a high degree ritual with nine degrees and with Rosicrucian elements. In the following years, these rites became more and more important for the German section. By 1914 about 1000 people, nearly a quarter of the German members, had participated in Steiner’s Masonic rites.

The Johannesbau in Dornach

From 1908 the German Adyar Theosophists built their own lodge buildings: in 1908 in Malch near Karlsruhe,and in 1911 in Stuttgart. The theosophical world was a secret and public one at the same time.5 In 1910 they began to plan a large complex of houses in Munich, intended as the center of the German Section. This included also the Johannesbau. Due to conflicts with the municipal council of Munich and with a Protestant parish in the neighborhood, the building license was refused. Steiner decided to erect the Johannesbau in Dornach, where a selected group of German Adyar Theosophists laid the foundation stone in a secret ceremony on 20 September 1913.

The Johannesbau in Dornach, was in 1918 renamed Goetheanum

When World War I broke out, the Johannesbau was nearly finished, and it had become a building of great dimensions: it measured 80 m in length and the great dome rose to 26 m in height. It consisted entirely of wood and had two round rooms that blended into each other. Each room had a circle of columns. The great dome seating 1000 people had columns 14 m high and harbored an organ in its western wall. The smaller room in the east was separated from the greater one by a proscenium arch. In its eastern side a place was provided for a wooden sculpture, created by Edith Maryon (1872-1924) and Rudolf Steiner, the Menschheitsreprasentant (the representative of mankind). Both rooms possessed iconographical elements. Monochromatic windows, whose engravings showed the way of initiation, enlightened the great dome. The small room had a painted ceiling with pictures of the cultural evolution of mankind.

In 1918 the Johannesbau was renamed Goetheanum, but in 1922 it was gutted in a fire. In the beginning of 1924 Steiner began to build a new edifice, also called (Second) Goetheanum, made of reinforced ferro-concrete. It stands, nearly finished, in Dornach to this day.

Second Goetheanum

The Functions of the Johannesbau

In Anthroposophical literature, the Johannesbau is regarded mainly:

As a stage for the performance of Steiner’s Mystery Plays,

As a room for the ‘eurhythmical’ dance and

As a conference hall for lectures for the inner circle of the Anthroposophical Society.

And indeed, Steiner announced Mystery Play performances as early as 1914.6 Since 1920, performances of eurhythmy were held in the small dome7, and Steiner used the great dome for his lectures. The scholars who have worked on anthroposophical architecture accepted this explanation and did not question its other uses.8 But in my opinion, this  is not correct, in any case not the whole truth, that the Johannesbau was built as a stage for the performance of stage-plays, pieces for eurhythmy and for Steiner’s lectures.

For years, Anthroposophists in the know either kept the main purpose of the Johannesbau secret or made only veiled or indirect hints in quite hidden and private publications. I believe that the Johannesbau was primarily designed for celebrating Masonic rites for the second and the third class of the Esoteric School in Steiner’s German section. This was the real motive for erecting this expansive and extravagant building. There are many arguments in favor of Masonic use, and I shall present some of them.

Firstly, there are three arguments against the officially asserted purposes:

The Johannesbau had no stage shifting equipment. Such essential elements of a stage were first introduced in the (second) Goetheanum. Moreover, the view from the great dome into the small dome was very limited.

For the performance of eurhythmy the small dome was unsuitable, because the floor inclined toward the great dome.

For his lectures, Steiner only used the great dome, never the small one.

In addition, there is positive proof of Masonic use of the Johannesbau. I mention four further arguments:

Steiner regarded the Johannesbau as a sacred space. When Prince Hendrik of the Netherlands visited the Johannesbau in 1918, Steiner forbade him to smoke in the small dome because of its sacredness. Other visitors were not allowed to eat in there: ‘You would not dare to do this in a church’, Steiner informed them.9

The great dome possessed windows whose iconography showed the way of initiation, as I mentioned above.10 In Steiner’s Theosophy (later Anthroposophy) the initiation has an unmistakable place: the Esoteric School, and its pinnacle were the Masonic ceremonies. The windows illustrated this initiation.

The name of the Johannesbau probably refers to a Masonic context. Steiner officially derived the name in 1924 from Johannes Thomasius, a figure of his Mystery Plays.11 But the name ‘Johannes’ (John) may also refer to the notion of ‘Johannis-Maurerei’ (in English rarely called ‘St. John’s Lodges’ or ‘St. John’s degrees’; normally: ‘Craft lodges’). When Steiner renamed the Johannesbau in 1918, he wanted to divert attention away from this connection, as he had already admitted indirectly in 1917.¹²

The Anthroposophist Karl E.A. Stockmeyer, who assisted in the planning of Johannesbau and who was a member of the Esoteric School since 1907, broke his silence in 1957 and revealed the original purpose of the Johannesbau:

“The First Goetheanum … was planned in a way, that a greater circle of people under the great cupola could have the experience of the cult [Kultus], celebrated under the small cupola […]. The focus under the small cupola should be the statue of the representative of mankind (Menschheitsreprasentat], under it the eastern altar.”¹³

And Stockmeyer explained the Kultus : It would have been the ‘cult [Kult] of the three altars and of the two columns.’ It is easy to decipher this description. The three altars were evidently used in Steiner’s Masonic ceremonies, and the two columns were the Masonic columns Jachin and Boas.

The background for Stockmeyer’s statement was a discussion in the Anthroposophical Society in the 1950s. The members had to decide on the interior decoration of the great hall of the (Second) Goetheanum. Should the function be reduced to theater performances and eurhythmy pieces, or should the Goetheanum be open to cults? Stockmeyer belonged to the faction in the Anthroposophical Society that supported the celebration of Masonic rites in the Goetheanum.

Detail Second Goetheanum

In order to understand Stockmeyer’s position, it is helpful to trace some backgrounds. Steiner had stopped his Masonic activities in 1914, at the beginning of World War I. That is (besides the fact, that the Johannesbau had not been finished) one reason why the Johannesbau has not been used as a Masonic lodge and why it was not inaugurated until 1922, when it was destroyed by fire.14 But Stockmeyer could refer to Steiner who after the end of World War I had announced in private conversations to reopen the Esoteric School and that he wanted to celebrate cults again. In 1924 Steiner started giving lectures for the first class, but he died the following year, before he was able to practice new rites. The ‘cultic department’ thus remained a project.

Why do we have so little knowledge of the relation between Steiner’s freemasonry and the Johannesbau? There are several reasons. Anthroposophists who were initiated in the second or third class of the Esoteric School did not betray their Masonic pledge of secrecy. And probably many of them did not realize the secret Masonic purpose of the Johannesbau. Furthermore the polemics of the National Socialists against the Anthroposophists strongly used anti-masonic stereotypes. So Theosophical freemasonry was a ‘not-topic’ for many years among Anthroposophists, even after 1945. Finally, most of the relevant documents in the archive of the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung (Rudolf Steiner’s Estate) were not published till 1987. For these reasons, the relationship between freemasonry and the Johannesbau remained practically unknown until now.

Detail Second Goetheanum

The Johannesbau in Dornach was not only used for theater productions, eurhythmy performances and lectures, but was actually designed as an area for Masonic ceremonies of the Esoteric School. For this purpose, the German Adyar-Theosophists (who became Anthroposophists in 1912) erected one of the greatest lodge buildings around 1900.

It was part of the attempts in Theosophy to offer a ritual initiation and to show an aesthetic way to Theosophical contents. To that end, Steiner used Masonic traditions. But there was still another context. Annie Besant had started with the Masonic extension of Theosophy in 1902, Steiner followed in 1905. Around 1910, the former partners slowly became rivals. The erection of the Johannesbau and Steiner’s Masonic rites were part of this conflict.

Within the context of the conference topic, the Johannesbau is an example of esoteric architecture, which has been often misunderstood by art historians. A thorough study of esoteric (in this case, Theosophical and Masonic) sources and practices is necessary, to be able to fully understand and correctly interpret the function, architectural symbolism and decoration of the building. Since we have many pictures of the Johannesbau, it is possible to study and to document the hidden meanings of this building. But nearly all the other rooms, which were used for Masonic rites in the Anthroposophical Society in Germany (and in the different Theosophical Societies), do not exist anymore. Anthroposophists profaned most of them in the years around 1914, and the National Socialists destroyed the remnants in 1937. The chance of preserving this tradition of esoteric buildings doesn’t exist any longer in Germany.


1 This essay is based on Geschichte der Theosophie und Anthropolgie in Deutschland (1884-1945) by the same author, forthcoming 2006 (publisher: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen).

2 Olcott, 1895, p. 401.

3 Concerning the life of Steiner cf. Wehr 1987; Lindenberg 1988 and 1997.

4 Officially first published twenty years ago: Steiner 1987.

5 Zander 2003.

6 Steiner 1997, p.181.

7 Dubach-Donath 1979, p.179.

8 ‘Die praktische Rechtfertigung … ergab sich aus den Mysterienspielen … und den eurythmischen Auffuhrungen’ (Pehnt 1998, p. 206). More or less alike: Ohlenschlager 1999.

9 Schubert 1970, p. 54 ff.

10 Raske 1983.

11 Steiner 1961, p. 308.

12 Steiner: ‘eine grosse Anzahl von Menschen [denkt] bei dem Namen “Johannes-Bau” an die Johannes-Freimaurerei’, Archive of the Anthroposophical Society, Goetheanum, Dornach: Johannesbauverein Dornach, Protokoll zur 5. ordentlichen Generalversammlung, am Sonntag, den 21. Oktober 1917, vormittags 10 Uhr, in Dornach, booklet 36, pp., p.26.

13 Stockmeyer 1957, p. 7 ff. Central parts of this quotation also in: Steiner 1933, p. 163.

14 It is likely, that the building itself was set on fire by the anthroposophist Jacob Ott; cf. the documentary materials in Steiner 1991, pp. 747-773. The motives of Ott are unknown.


Dubach-Donath, Annemarie, ‘Aus der eurythmischen Arbeit mit Rudolf Steiner’, in Beltle E. / Vierl, K. (ed.), Erinnerungen an Rudolf Steiner, (Verglag Freies Geistesleben) Stuttgart 1979, pp. 174-179.

Lindenberg, Christoph, Rudolf Steiner. Eine Chronik 1861-1925, (Verlag Freies Geistesleben) Stuttgart 1988.

Lindenberg, Christoph, Rudolf Steiner. Eine Biographie, 2 vols., (Verlag Freies Geistesleben) Stuttgart 1997.

Ohlenschlager, Sonja, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Das architektonische Werk, (Michael Imhof-Verlag) Petersberg 1999.

Olcott, Henry Steel, Old Diary Leaves. The True Story of the Theosophical Society, (Putnam) New York et al. 1895.

Pehnt, Wolfgang, Die Architektur des Expressionismus, (Hatje) Stuttgart 3rd ed. 1998.

Raske, Hilde, Das Farbenwort. Rudolf Steiners Malerei und Fensterkunst im ersten Goetheanum, (Verlag Freies Geistesleben) Stuttgart 1983.

Roggenkamp, Walther, Das Goetheanum als Gesamtkunstwerk. Rudolf Steiner, Der Baugedanke des Goetheanum. Einleitender Vortrag mit Erklarungen zu den Lichtbildern des Goetheanum-Baues, gehalten in Bern am 29. Juni 1921. Zum Bildband erweitert und gestaltet von Walther Roggenkamp, (Verlag am Goetheanum) Dornach 1986.

Schubert, Ilona, Selbsterlebtes im Zusammensein mit Rudolf Steiner und Marie Steiner, (Zbinden) Basel 2nd ed. 1970.

Steiner, Rudolf, Der Goetheanumgedanke inmitten der Kulturkrisis der Gegenwart [= Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe; 36], (Rudolf Steiner Verlag) Dornach 1961.

Steiner, Rudolf, Zur Geschichte und aus den Inhalten der erkenntniskultischen Abteilung der Esoterischen Schule von 1904 bis 1914 [= Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe; 265], (Rudolf Steiner Verlag) Dornach 1987.

Steiner, Rudolf, Das Schicksalsjahr 1923 der Geschichte der Anthroposophischen Gesellschaft, Vom Goetheanumbrand zur Weihnachtstagung. Ansprachen – Versammlungen – Dokumente, Januar bis Dezember 1923 [= Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe; 259], (Rudolf Steiner Verlag) Dornach 1991.

Steiner, Rudolf, Bilder okkulter Siegel und Saulen [= Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe; 284], (Rudolf Steiner Verlag) Dornach 3rd ed. 1993.

Steiner, Rudolf, Inneres Wesen des Menschen und Leben zwischen Geburt und neuer Geburt [= Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe; 153], (Rudolf Steiner Verlag) Dornach 6th ed. 1997.

Stockmeyer, Ernst August Karl, Um die Goetheanum-Bauidee, Basel 1957.

Wehr, Gerhard, Rudolf Steiner. Leben, Erkenntnis, Kulturimpuls, (Kosel) Munich 2nd ed. 1987.

Zander, Helmut, ‘Theosophische Orte: Uber Versuche, ein Geheimnis zu wahren und offentlich zu wirken’, Osterreichische Zeitschrift fur Geschichtswissenschaften vol. 13 (2003), no. 4, pp. 119-147.

Zimmer, E., Rudolf Steiner als Architekt von Wohn- und Zweckbauten, (Verlag Freies Geistesleben) Stuttgart 1971, p. 19.

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