We think of the geometry of sacred art as the employment of geometric proportions, shapes, and symbols to design works that evoke spiritual contemplation or communicate spiritual thoughts. The idea that God created the universe according to a geometric plan has ancient origins. The ancient Greek biographer Plutarch quoted Plato as writing, “God geometrizes continually.” Geometry is associated with divinity in otherwise vastly different cultures and religious traditions. It is universally employed to inspire spiritual respect, devotion, awe, and reverence among believers.
The principles of unity, duality, polarity, equilibrium, and proportion form the basis of all geometric diagrams, both sacred and secular. The resulting diagrams, therefore, express the organizing property of geometry, which is called symmetry. Symmetry, in turn, symbolizes the intelligence and creative potential of the universe itself. We hold as sacred ideas that we consider eternal, meaning they have no beginning and no end. Creative principles expressed in the geometry of sacred art are not in themselves part of the physical world; they are metaphysical. The existence of everything in the physical world depends on the principles expressed by geometry, but the principles behind the geometry do not depend on the physical world.
Islamic Decoration in the Alcazar
When we recognize that the same rational and creative principles that bring into being galaxies, seashells, crystals, and flowers also create our bodies and minds, we experience a sensation of empathy with the totality of creation. Empathy with the totality of creation is the primary source of spirituality, aesthetics, and even love. It is therefore natural that we should wish to utilize geometrical designs in our places of worship, such as churches, temples, mosques, religious monuments, altars, and tabernacles. Focusing our minds on diagrams that express symmetry and proportion helps balance our minds and emotions, thus bringing us into the higher realm of ideas. We identify the geometry of sacred art with the totality of intelligence and creativity that is often partially hidden in nature by the complexity of cause and effect.
The ancient Greeks identified four ordering principles in design and called them “symmetries.” Today when we hear the word “symmetry, we think of one side of an image or object mirroring the other. This symmetry should more accurately be called either “reflective, mirror, or bilateral symmetry.” The other two “modular symmetries” are rotational symmetry and translational symmetry. Translation, rotation, and reflection combine in different ways to make every conceivable regular pattern. Regular patterns in art and design are pleasing and comforting to us because they symbolize order and stability.
Geometrical Ceiling in a Roman Church
The fourth symmetry in the geometry of sacred art is proportion. If we change the size of a shape or form by a set amount every time we repeat it, we obtain a fractal design. Fractal designs include the spirals of seashells and the arrangement of branches on trees. The ancient Greeks and Romans generally used proportion selectively in the vertical divisions of ceramics and architecture because it symbolizes growth in nature. Like all geometry, sacred geometry uses combinations of the four symmetries to make patterns. The geometry of sacred art is not different from ordinary geometry except that the symbolic designs that arise from the interaction of the four symmetries have symbolic significance.
Geometrical symbols such as the Vesica Piscis, the pentagon, and the cross have both innate symbolic meaning and conventional or given meanings. The innate meaning of the pentagon symbol, for instance, is life. Living things grow proportionally, generally according to the Golden Section ratio, which appears in the proportions of a pentagon. Living things, such as flowers and seashells, often have pentagonal symmetry. Conversely, crystals and minerals never show pentagonal symmetry in nature. The ancient Greeks held the pentagon in the highest esteem because it denoted life. The middle ages had a general distrust of ancient beliefs, and the pentagon later became associated with magic and witchcraft. In the Renaissance, the pentagon became a symbol of defense, and architects often deployed it in the design of fortresses.
Spanish and Islamic Geometrical Art in the Alcazar
The most important aspect of the geometry of sacred art is not in its use of specific symbols to impart meaning; this changes from culture to culture. Sacred art stimulates our appreciation of the attributes of intelligence and principles of creativity that bring order and beauty to the universe. It celebrates the creative joy expressed in the the myriad forms of nature and manifests the same joy in the artistic expressions of humankind.
To read further, continue to: “The Sacred Roots of Street Painting.”