Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Cube, the Sphere and the Theology of Architecture

The last two post I talked about the shape of the circle and its relationship to divinity and perfection.  I spoke about how the completeness and simplicity of the form made almost all cultures revere the form as divine.  This universality of understanding leads us to believe that there is something both in the nature of the form, and in the nature of man's mind that leads us to say this. No god ever declared it to be so, but the minds of men simply know that it is so.  Something known naturally is also known then universally by all mankind, and so has symbolic meaning to all people. So we can say this is known to be divine naturally.  

These natural symbols then have power beyond any extrinsic character we put upon them, and thus are very powerful, and so they must be used very carefully. We saw that the church in the round misuses this symbolism as it places the altar in the same space as the people, symbolizing the perfection of all that is present, so minimizing the teaching of a journey towards the perfection of heaven. 

But moving on I want to speak about symbols of divinity that are not purely products of natural reason, but rather those that are given by revelation.  In the interest of staying with the theme of basic geometric forms, I’d like to talk now in particular about the form of the cube. 

The perfect cube instituted by God
for the Holy of Holies.
The cube is a revealed form, as it is given specifically by God to Moses in outlining the dimensions of the Tabernacle where the Aaronic priesthood would worship God. God would be actually present to the Jews seated atop the Ark of the Covenant, in the Holy of Holies which took the form of a perfect cube. The symbol of the cube continues throughout the Old Testament to be used for the permanent Temple of Solomon, where too the Ark and God were truly present. In the Book of Revelation would it reappear, when St. John saw the New Jerusalem, built of gold in the form of a perfect cube.

The connection between this Old Testament revelation and the vision of paradise to come is outlined well by Dr. Denis McNamara in his book Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.  He explains that the Tabernacle and temple are a shadow of that divine reality of the New Jerusalem, giving a hint at the reality but not showing it in full. 

The divinity of the circle is
known to even the pagans.
We live now however in a time of image where because of God coming to Earth in the person of Christ, the divine presence is here, in reality, but not in fullness. But we as Christians in that time between shadow and reality, though we have God truly present as both in the Temple and in Heaven, we have no divinely instituted form to give symbolism to this reality. What we must do then is make use of both natural and divine reasons to come up with a solution.  This is of course the same thing as what theology is, which as a philosophical discipline takes one premise from natural reason, and anotehr from revelation.

From the very beginning then the church embraced the divine form of the cube found in Temple and the Synogogue (as Pope Benedict XVI explained), and carried them forward by use of natural reason to make them suitable for use by the Christian Church.  

The perfect sphere of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome
Now the form of the cube, while divinely instituted, is also a form which can be seen as perfect by natural reason as well.   The pagan Greek mathematicians Euclid and Pythagoras saw it as one of the “perfect” solids, where divinity could be comprehended.  The form is known as divine both through reason and revelation.  To the early Christians, then were working theologically, and as theology is subject to development, they quickly melded this to another sacred form, the aforementioned circle and it's development, the sphere.

The apse of the original cathedral of Venice,
S. Maria Assunta, Torcello
Now the Romans used this divine form in the Pantheon, a perfect sphere defining the space where the entire cosmos of the pagan gods were to be worshipped. The apse of course was a common form used by the Romans where the seat of authority would sit in judgement, but the form of it is a combination of the cube and the sphere. Melding these three symbols, both of the cosmic sphere, cube of the Holy of Holies, and bringing along with it the Roman authority, the Christians were able to turn this form into a truly uniquely Christian sacred space.

Tradition, like theology, does not abandon truths known in the past as obsolete, only develops and perfects them, so when we create architectural forms for Christian worship, we should keep this in mind. In rejecting the form of the temple and the apse, we do so by also rejecting the theological understandings about that space, and the ability to symbolize those truths.