From the moment that humans came into the understanding of their own mortality as well as the realization of how little we understood about our surroundings, our origins, and ultimately our destination, we have continually tried to explain the world around us and the meaning of our existence. For centuries the pinnacle of human purpose has been, to construct a better understanding of the mystery which surrounds us. With each successive generation we build another level onto the foundation of our ancestor’s beliefs, ideas, concepts, social constructs, as well as material constructs. As Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” It is through this tradition of knowledge and understanding that the world’s religions find their origin. The first undisputed human burial dates to Neanderthal man around 100,000 years ago marking the first time we had abstract thought at least that we know of. It is this abstract thinking which paved the way for religion, science, math, astronomy, architecture and artistic expression.
Architecture, artistic expression and religion are a few of the first examples of human transcendence into complex social structures. The first human architecture began with the need for shelter but later blossomed into the construction of human sacred space in memoriam of the dead, and later for the purpose of reflecting on existence, the heavens, and ultimately a divine reality, this marked the beginning of man’s religious experience. Initially mankind’s architectural capabilities were only as good as it’s comprehension of the elements within it’s surroundings. Fortunately, mankind soon would begin to grasp more complicated and abstract concepts such as math and the sciences, and incorporate his mastery of these new practices into his sacred space which became the cornerstone of human society. Through math and science we were able to create a reflection of the magnificent order that we noticed within the universe.
Within mankind’s plethora of sacred space which seems to encompass the whole of human existence, there are many architectural themes which have transcended the many faiths of the world, as well as the centuries. The most prominent of these architectural themes are the square and the circle also known as the quadrature. These two shapes have served as the centerpiece of not only sacred space but also some of the world’s greatest traditions. It is said that all of the people of the planet are to have originated in the same place, so it would only make sense that many of our beliefs would share the same origins as well. In each of the world’s religious traditions we are given a handful of concepts, symbols and signs. If we take a closer look at these symbols and signs we may find that the many different beliefs and spiritual concepts around the world share a possible common origin. These symbols are embedded within the scriptures, art, and architecture of the world’s spiritual traditions and once understood can be recognized within the framework of man’s religious expression.
Freemason (Photo credit: 10 Ninjas Steve)
The earth’s most sublime sacred space was designed and built by the world’s most brilliant contributors and amongst these people we find some of the greatest architects and stone masons ever to grace our path. While masonry is the material expression of the art form, freemasonry serves as it’s more abstract and spiritual counterpart. The symbol for freemasonry is the compass and square two tools which are necessary for any great architect and geometer. The compass is on top while the square is on the bottom “as above so below.” The compass is the symbol for the circle which symbolizes perfection and the divine aspect of reality, while the square is the reflection of that divine perfection. A circle is 360 degrees while the square consists of four 90 degree angles which add up to 360 degrees. Within the divine nature, circles are everywhere but the square is of human creation and serves as the building block of human understanding, as well as of the world’s sacred space. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” Man’s building block “the square” serves as the reflection for the universe’s building block ‘the circle.” This is a deep understanding within the human consciousness and is projected within our architecture. The “compass and the square” is only one symbol which has many meanings and interpretations but it helps us to more easily recognize the interconnectedness of mankind and the divine reality, and it is my belief that the designers of the world’s sacred space had a deeper understanding of this symbolism and incorporated it into their designs as a way of telling a deeper truth.
This symbolic reality permeates the architecture of much of the world’s sacred space and religions. This symbolic truth is the world religion, which is wrapped in religious dogma from the many faiths of the world. We humans serve as the looking glass of the reality with which we perceive, and although these perceptions can number in the millions there is a single truth which can be recognized through all of the millions of perceptions. Whether it is the conscious effort of the creators of sacred space or if it is a natural progression of truth which we only play a role in creating, the theme still exists. In order for us to be able to see this theme we must take a look at some of the world’s well known religions and their expression of sacred space. For us to clearly recognize the sacred theme of the architects we will begin to look at the three monotheistic faiths and their sacred space as well as a few of the eastern religious traditions.
DamascusRomanArch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Judaism and Christianity have borrowed most of their architectural designs from that of the Romans. The ancient Romans of course are the originators of the roman arch. The Roman arch is a classic example of the circle square mystery that has been previously described. The circle once again is placed on top of the square. This is an example of the dome of the sky which rests upon the firmament of the earth. The Roman arch is of course a magnificent architectural design and is designed as such to be strong architecturally as well as symbolically. This is a design that has been incorporated into many Judaic synagogues as well as Christian churches the world over. Judaism unfortunately has sustained many attacks upon many of the temples and synagogues which it has created leaving the world lacking in terms of historical Judaic sacred space. Fortunately modern times have afforded the Jews a relative sense of peace which has allowed Judaic sacred space to spread.
The largest Synagogue in Germany was built in 1903 and was designed by Johann Hoeniger in Berlin and is known as the Rykestrasse Synagogue. The architectural style is Romanesque and of course incorporates a spectacular Roman arch in the apse which houses a series of smaller arches around the Bema. The most significant of roman arches within sacred space tend to be centered around the most sacred of places within. Of course in the case of the Jewish synagogue the Bema is the place which houses the Torah.
Synagoge Rykestraße (Photo credit: Mesq)
Another beautiful synagogue which has the arch which is as grandiose as that of Rykestrasse is that of the Synagogue de la Victoire in Paris,France. Once again, situated in the apse, is the most sacred of places within the synagogue.
Inside the Great Synagogue of Paris (Rue de la Victoire) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As well as incorporating the Roman arch both of these beautiful synagogues also have integrated a gothic architectural style rose window. These rose windows are another example of the perfection represented within the symbolism of the circle. The rose window is a design which has been lifted from Christian sacred space and has been recycled in Jewish architectural designs as well. If we are to look at Jewish architectural designs prior to the advent of the Romanesque style which we see today, we are left with only the written record of the Bible to rely upon, which consists of two particular sacred structures. These of course are the “Tabernacle in the wilderness” and the “Temple of Solomon.” Although neither one of these have within them the mystery of the circle and square they are worth noting because of their importance within the Jewish faith. Both of these sacred places are more significant in the sense that they symbolize the impermanence of the Hebrew lifestyle at the beginning. This is important because it helps to once again illustrate how humans sometimes knowingly and unknowingly incorporate their culture into their architecture.
Christianity of course grew out of the Jewish faith and shares many of the same beliefs as well as architectural designs in its sacred space. Christianity of course has a long and admirable tradition of exquisite sacred architecture. From the original early Christian churches to the Medieval, Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine, and clear into the renaissance we see a religious tradition which has helped to shape the minds and beliefs of a large portion of the modern world. Once again to clearly understand how the symbolism of the circle and square tie into the Christian belief system we must take another look at a few examples. The idea of Christ is that he is God born as a man which is the amalgamation of the human aspect and the divine aspect of reality. This is once again symbolized with a square enclosed by a circle and vice versa. The circle is also a common theme within Christ iconography which can be found within the walls of the Byzantine and eastern orthodox style churches. Christ is usually depicted with a glowing gold orb around his head which is the symbol of the divine light as well as the rising sun (son) which illuminates the world for all to see.
God the Geometer
Another important Christian symbol is that of the fish which has specific meaning within the Christian faith which I will not explain here. But as a side note it is interesting that when a geometer is to construct a perfect square he uses a compass which is ordinarily used to construct a circle. In this particular practice the geometer creates a set of points which he uses as the pivot points for two arcs which intersect and it is at this intersection which he creates a perpendicular. This process is repeated until all four corners of the square are designated by the arcs (for a video detailing this process go to the web link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BSIUx89dgg). These two arcs look extremely close to the design of the Christian fish. This concept of course is only a theory of mine which is not grounded in any evidence. But it is my belief that many of the symbols which we see within the religious traditions of the world are also tied to the secrets of these geometers and architects.
In the case of Christian architecture we once again see the continuation of the Roman arch but in addition to that we see many other symbolic architectural designs which follow our theme. In later Christian architecture we see the proliferation of the Greek cross and Latin cross floor plans. The Greek cross is an equal armed cross while the Latin cross resembles more the cross of the crucifixion. The cross is a powerful symbol and along with being an important Christian symbol it has had many meanings throughout time. It has often been tied to the four cardinal directions as well as holding importance within the Druidic traditions of Britain and Gaul. “Both the Cross and the Serpent were sacred to the Druids, who made the former by cutting off all the branches of an oak tree and fastening one of them to the main trunk in the form of a letter T. This oaken cross became symbolic of their superior deity (Manly P. Hall 47).” At the head of this Latin cross in the case of Christian architecture is the apse of the Church which once again serves as the holiest place within the Cathedral or Church. In the case of the Cathedral it houses not only the Bema where the rights of communion are held but it also seats the Cathedra or the throne of the Bishop. The apse itself is shaped like a semi circle which I believe is another representation of the golden orb or sun which surrounds the head of Christ. It is no wonder that this part of the Church is normally placed in the direction of the East, the place of the rising sun (son). In many cases this apse has not only a semi circular floor plan but is also enshrined by a dome or another roman arch, “as above so below.”
Once again we see this concept of the reflection here on earth of the divine reality in the heavens. One of the more magnificent examples of this is the apse within the “Basilica of St. John Lateran” which houses the seat of the Bishop of Rome or the throne of the Pope. At the zenith of the semi circular dome of this apse is a painting of the Godhead Christ with a giant golden orb about his head. Almost all of the Gothic style Cathedrals in Europe are structured on the Latin cross design with this semi circular apse. Just as the symbolic meaning of the gothic style stained glass enshrined Cathedrals is of the womb so I believe the semicircular domed apse in sacred space architecture is a representation of the womb or “original cave” where the essence of humanity and divine reality sprung forth.
English: Basilica of St. John Lateran – apse Italiano: Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano – l’abside Polski: Bazylika św. Jana na Lateranie – apsyda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“Basilica of St. John Lateran”
Another reoccurring theme is the use of the rose window, a circular window in the wall of the Gothic style church which is made out of stained glass and resembles the shape of the petals of a rose. This window is also referred to as the wheel window as well and is usually encased by a square frame. This squaring of the circular wheel window can be seen in the rose window of the “Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg” which at one point in history was the world’s tallest church. On the Western face of the Strasbourg Cathedral in France sits the rose window above the door of the church. One of the most beautifully intricate examples of the rose window is at Sainte Chapelle in Paris which depicts images of the apocalypse within its tracery. The rose window is said to have found its origins in the oculus of ancient Roman architecture which was a round porthole at the top of a dome. This porthole somewhat is representational of an eye which is where it gets its name. The intricate stained glass of the rose window looks much like the geometrical paintings found in eastern Mandalas which we will take a look at later. Christian architecture is a rich and beautiful tradition which has pulled many of its architectural designs from ancient Rome as well as getting many of its symbolic themes from its neighbors and its own belief system and mythology.
Rose window in Strasbourg Cathedral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Rose window of Strasbourg external Rose Window of Strasbourg internal
Rose window – Upper Chapel – Sainte Chapelle , Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Rose Window of Sainte Chapelle
Islam is the last of the great Abrahamic traditions which has contributed much to the architecture of sacred space, mathematics and science. Some might even argue that the architecture found in Muslim sacred space is more impressive than that of many of the Christian churches. Where Christianity has dedicated much of its church designs to religious iconography and paintings, Islam has focused its energy on the intricacies of architectural design and geometry. Although many of the beliefs differ between that of Islam and its predecessors a good majority of the beliefs within the three have similarities. These similarities of course can be seen within the many architectural traditions within Islam. In order for us to achieve a clear understanding of Islam’s architectural forms and their similarities to Christianity and Judaism we must take a look at a some of the common architectural themes as well as Islam’s two holiest examples of sacred space; “The Dome of the Rock” and the “Kaaba.” In the process we may find the square and the circle resurfacing as a trait once again of the world’s sacred space.
First let us take a look at the overall floor plan of the Masjid and how it mirrors much of what we have already seen in Christianity and Judaism. There are four major forms of Masjid within Islam.
English: Stone columns – Hypostyle hall of the Mosque of Córdoba (Mezquita), Spain Deutsch: Säulensaal der Moschee von Córdoba (Mezquita), Spanien (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The first style is the Hypostyle Mosques which have many roman style columns creating an arcade set to the backdrop of a large courtyard. Many of the floor plans for mosques are designed with climate in mind since many of them are set in the extreme temperatures of the desert. With a religious culture which spends up to five times a day in the mosque it is important to keep the comfortability of the visitors in mind. The next design of mosque is the Sehan style which dedicates its design to the courtyard that is a part of the former hypostyle design. From there it evolved into the Iwan style masjid which is reminiscent of the Greek cross floor plan of the Eastern Orthodox Church but in the case of the Mosque has the courtyard once again as the centerpiece of the sacred space. Finally we see the spread of the domical mosque which incorporates a series of domes into the overall design of the mosque which has the feel of Byzantine architecture.
All of the following designs of mosque and the prayers within the mosque are focused on the mihrab or sacred niche which is situated on the Qibla wall in the direction of Mecca. The mihrab is usually marked by an arched doorway which is another representation of the man and God connection. This of course has many similarities to the apse found within Christian and Judaic sacred space. This is another example of the sacred niche, cave, womb, etc. which tends to be the focus of worship in these religions. Just as in Christian and Judaic architectural style, Islam has what is called a Minbar which is where the Imam leads the prayer this design is of course akin to the Bema. Originally the Mihrab was the throne room in a palace which also reminds us of the Cathedral in the Christian tradition. In the mythology which surrounds Mohammed the leader of the Islamic faith he is said to have received his revelations while meditating in a cave in and around Mecca. This concept of a cave being the source of divine revelation is a reoccurring theme within many of the world’s religions and mythology. Zarathustra is said to have descended out of the cave of a mountain, Plato tells a story called the “Allegory of the Cave” which has many implications into the world’s religion’s as well as contemporary man’s so called sacred space the “man-cave” where modern man looks at so called reality upon the cave wall. The cave is like the womb of the earth which man is born anew. Only within the darkness can you clearly receive the light, many Native American tribes used light deprivation as a way to have shamanic experiences. This idea of the cave, I believe is being shown to us in the apse of Christian architecture and the Islamic mihrab which is the focus of man’s worship. Just as the mihrab and apse is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the church or mosque. So is the church or mosque the microcosm of the mythical cave of these mythologies. We must go within ourselves to better understand the world outside and this is the idea of the church, mosque, or temple, it is a place for introspection and reflection.
Dome of the Rock (Photo credit: myheartinpalestineII)
Dome of the Rock
If we take a look at the floor plan and design of the “Dome of the Rock,” which is a holy site for not only Muslims but Christians and Jews as well, we see that it is a dome which is centered on an octagonal building situated around a rock which is said to be the place of Mohammed’s ascension into heaven as well as the place where Abraham almost sacrificed his son. The octagon is another popular design in religious architecture and can be designed by overlaying two perfect squares in a criss cross pattern, another interesting feature of the octagon is that you can place a circle around the perimeter of the octagon and the circle will touch each point of every angle. The octagon itself is a symbol of regeneration and renewal and in Christian churches it usually marks the place where baptism is held. If we are to look at the Islamic faith it is believed that Mohammed brought to the world the renewal of the ancient religious texts of Christianity and Judaism, because as Muslims, they believe these texts had been tainted by the hands of men throughout time. Of course the dome situated in the center of the building we have talked about previously and it is my belief that the symbolism is still the same within Islamic architecture. Outside of the basic structure of this masjid the exterior is covered in beautiful multicolored tile as well as inlayed marble which is said to be the precious remains of Solomon’s Temple. The Dome of the Rock is one of the more beautiful contributions of man and it is unfortunate that it is the source of so many modern social problems.
Kaaba at Mecca (quadrature of worshippers surrounding the cube)
The Kaaba in Mecca is the holy center of the Islamic faith, and is the focal point of all Muslim prayers. While the architecture found in Islam can be some of the most impressive in the world, the Kaaba on the other hand has a much more humble design. It is a cube shaped structure which is visited by millions of Muslims everyday. Within the Kaaba is held another rock which has been kissed and touched by millions of Muslims throughout history. The cube is said to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael and is a place for Hajj (pilgrimage) for all Muslims. The cube of course is the square which we have focused much of our attention, what is interesting about this particular religious site is that the people serve as the symbol of the circle as they circumambulate the building seven times. As well, there is a sacred space between the cube and a wall shaped like an arch on the northern side where no Muslim is permitted to pass through during the procession. Once again we are able to see this ongoing theme throughout the sacred space of the world. While these are the most important examples of Islamic architecture and the symbolism hidden within there are many other examples within Islamic sacred space.
The Sanchi stupa in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh built by Emperor Ashoka the Great in the third century BC. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Finally if we take a glance at a few examples of the sacred space of the eastern religious traditions we see that the squaring of the circle is not isolated to the Abrahamic traditions. In the Buddhist tradition most of the sacred space is a structure known as a Stupa. The Buddhist Stupa is literally a mound of earth in the shape of a circle which is surrounded by a square building. The Stupa is an ancient form of the Mandala which has its roots in the Hindu faith. The Mandala is a geometric design with ornately painted scenes embedded within the squared circle and it is sometimes used as the focus of meditation. “In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, as a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. (Wikipedia).” The Stupa is said to symbolize the enlightenment of the Buddha in the Buddhist tradition. It seems to be a common theme to erect a sacred building to remember the enlightenment or divine revelation of man.
The Mandala, the Masjid e Shah interior dome, and the Rose window of the Cathedral in Chartres France.
While Hindu architecture does not necessarily derive its designs from the square and circle archetypes that we have discussed thus far it is necessary to note that there is a feature within Hindu sacred space which has a correlation to a point discussed earlier. The GarbhaGriha is the most sacred of places within the Hindu temple and is the resting place of the yoni and lingam which are the symbols of the female and male generative aspects of the universe. The square has also been interpreted as the male aspect of the universe while the circle is the female and the two overlaid upon each other is a symbol of the generative aspect of the universe as well. It is also interesting to note that the meaning of GarbhaGriha is womb chamber which correlates back to the notion of the mihrab, apse, and sacred space as a whole being a symbol of the womb as we have touched on previously.
yoni and lingham in Garbhagriha
It is clear that the world’s religious traditions have been the centerpiece of human self discovery and contemplation. The sacred space found within the faiths of the world are a sort of blossoming flower which continues to open up in a million different ways. There are many differences which we may be able to find amongst the religions of man but on the other hand it is clear that there are many similarities between each and every one of us. No matter what faith you hail from, there is an underlying story which is told time and time again. The notion of birth, life, death, and rebirth is a familiar story which we see in nature everyday with the sun as it travels through the sky. The seasons as well serve as a symbol of renewal every year. Just as the story of Jesus reminds us of Mithras and Heracles before him, the story still tells us the divine reality which is all around us. Whether it is the Divine reality or the mundane we cross over between the two worlds during this life into the next. The symbols with which we adorn our temples only tell a deeper human story which we take part in during this life and the next. Architecture, mathematics, religion and science are some of man’s greatest discoveries which we have dedicated a lot of our time to helping us explain the mystery of the universe and the meaning of our existence. The squaring of the circle is man’s attempt to try and wrap his brain around the mystery of the divine reality with which we are entwined. It is through our explanations and our artistic expression where we see some of the world’s most beautiful structures and this is what I believe is the true nature of sacred space.
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