Rose Windows and Sacred Geometry - the Ancient Mystical Path to God


I have just been creating a new online course on the mathematics of beauty and as part of this, I wanted to show how to represent the symbolic meaning of number in the context of the liturgy in such a way that it might deepen participation. The obvious way to do this is to have a pattern with the symmetry of the number. This will require also some catechesis of the congregations so that they are reminded of what it is pointing to every time they see it. It can be part of the decoration of the church, incidental, as it were, to the structure:

Or it can be more intimately and obviously bound with the form of the church, as it is in the medieval rose window. Here is a window dating from about 1500 in the cathedral at Amiens in France:

It is important to awaken our innate sense of the symbolism of the natural world and all that is created as this stimulates also our natural sense of the divine. The awe and wonder that we feel when we contemplate the world around us is, for all that it seems profound, little better than a shallow emotion generated artificially by a drug if we stop there and do not allow it to draw us closer to its source - God. This is its true consummation, we are made to see the glory of God in his creation and it will be to his greater glory and our greater joy if we allow the beauty of the world to take us to what it points to.

We can consider this to be a form of relation. Creation is in relation to its Creator. By virtue of its existence, it is relational, for it is connected to its Creator by the mark of divine beauty He has impressed upon it. This interconnectivity of all that exists, therefore, is not a mental construct thrust upon the cosmos artificially by mankind. Rather it is a property of the object that we see. All being is relational by nature and is patterned lattice that has the Creator at its heart.

As created beings ourselves, we participate in this dynamic too, seeing a natural connection between ourselves and the rest of the cosmos. All of mankind is endowed by the Creator with an intellect and the capacity to observe the world around us in such as way that it can derive from it an understanding of our place within it, and ultimately this points to and sheds light on our relationship with the Creator.

Part of our task as people seeking to evangelize the world is to re-awaken the final link in the chain of connection between creation and Creator by re-establishing a culture that is rooted in this principle of interconnectivity through its beauty. This process of evangelization of the culture begins in the church in which all that we perceive and all that we do participates in this language of symbol and is there to connect us to God.

Coming back to the symbolism of number, it is widely accepted, even in the secular culture, that the natural world is connected to mathematics. The connection is so strong that few, if any, doubt, for example, the power of mathematics to help the natural scientist to describe the processes of the natural world. However, I think we should stop for a moment and think about this - it need not automatically be the case. Once I realised this it became a source of great wonder to me that the abstract world of mathematics is so intimately bound in its structure with the behaviour of the natural world.

This had to be noticed before the connection could be made, and it is why figures such as Boethius commented, in his De Institutione Arithmetica, (Bk1, Ch.2) that 'number was the principal exemplar in the in the mind of the Creator' and from this is derived the pattern of its existence that the scientist observes.

The natural scientist of today is generally less aware of the symbolism that runs through both nature and mathematics. The medieval thinker would not have rejected method of today's natural scientists I suggest but would have added to his description of the natural world the symbolic language of number, which is largely forgotten today. If scientists were to do this today, I suggest that it would inform his work in such as way that technology would both enhance his work as a conventional scientist and allow its applications to become more in harmony with the flourishing of man. Rather than being in conflict with today's scientist, the proponent of sacred number has something that can help him to be a better scientist.

Geometry is a way in which number can be expressed in space through matter, and so this is why geometric patterned art ought to be right at the heart of the evangelization of the culture and any sacred art. It is also why the study of the symbolic meaning of number in conjunction with the study of geometry is so important in a Catholic education today. What I propose is a study of geometry that is so much deeper, and more exciting than the dull task of memorizing Euclidian proofs (which sadly seems to be the way it is taught in Great Books schools today). This is about connecting the pattern of the universe to the creative impulse of man so that the beauty of the culture can direct us to God even more powerfully than the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen.

And so this is why I would like to see the rebirth of the Rose Window, in our new churches. This is more than simple decoration, if done well it has the power to stimulate in us a profound sense of our place in the world and in relation to God. Always assuming that even if we got as far as seeing them in churches, the catechesis available would be minimal or poor (we're Catholics!) these would need to be designed in such a way that the symbolism was obvious. There is nothing stopping words and scriptural quotes being added, just as we must in figurative art, in order to clarify, for example.

Here I give some examples of such windows with, three, four, five and sevenfold symmetry. I have obtained these photographs from a great resource that I discovered online called, run by Painton Cowen, who kindly gave us permission to reproduce his photographs here. This site has photos of windows based upon numbers that you don't normally associate with Christian symbolism - 11 and 13 for example. I would want to consider carefully the basis of these before replicating them today. We must learn from the past, but we must be aware also that not everything that it tells us is true!

Here are some images.

Three, 15th century, Barrien, France:

Four and three in a quincunx arrangement of five objects, 15th century, Agen, France

Five, Exeter, England, 13/14th century:

Seven, Beaulieu en Rouergue, France, possibly 14th century:

If you want to know more about the symbolism of number and the philosophy behind it, I suggest that you either read The Way of Beauty or take the course, the Mathematics of Beauty which will soon be offered at www.Pontifex.University, Master's in Sacred Arts program.

In the meantime...believe it or not, lucky thirteen! Larino Duomo, Italy,

The 'Fiveness' of Mary - Is it Genuine?

How do we authenticate traditional number symbolism? I was recently asked to contribute an icon to an exhibition. The exhibition is about 'the Blessed Virgin Mary and the number five'.

The promotional flier lists examples of how the number five is associated with the Virgin Mary. For example, one of her titles is Morning Star, which is the planet Venus and this links to five because the planet Venus traces a path across the sky that has a fivefold symmetry. The Lady Chapel at Wells Cathedral, it said, has a shape that constitutes three sides of a pentagon; and there are five decades of the rosary.I would like to believe that this association is part of our Catholic tradition, but I cannot find any reliable written evidence of such a traditional association. I would consider the above examples insufficient in themselves to prove such a connection; and the are many other associations that someone could point to in order to make the case for other numbers, for example, seven - the seven joys and the seven sorrows of Our Lady. I am hoping that some knowledgeable reader might be able to help me here. Do we have anything from, for example, St Augustine, in which he makes this connection between five and Our Lady?I asked the writer of the flier for some further and more conclusive evidence. I was hoping he might be aware of some reliable Catholic source that I didn't know about, but disappointingly he was unable to give any.

I am used to the idea of five being associated with human life and St Bonaventure for example, makes this connection in describing the five corporal senses and the five spiritual senses of man. Given that Our Lady who gave, so to speak, Christ his humanity, the linking of Our Lady to the number five does seem to be a natural extension of this, but if this extension had been made in the past one would have thought that there would reference to it somewhere in the writings of the saints. Similarly, we know from historical documents that gothic masons used geometry in the design of their cathedrals (Milan Cathedral is designed on a triangular grid, for example). I have heard of no similar document making the connection between a building dedicated to Our Lady and a pentangular design, although I have heard similar claims about other buildings such as the rose window at the gothic cathedral at Amiens dedicated to Our Lady - 'Notre-Dame d'Amiens' (shown above). There is every chance of course that these records do exist and it is simply that I do not know about them, so I keep an open mind.

Suppose, for arguments sake that we can find no real justification for concluding that there is a historical connection between the number five and Our Lady, and that the examples listed are to be considered just coincidences - after all you have to pick some sort of symmetry in a well ordered design. Does this mean that we can't make the association now? In my opinion, the answer to that is no. There seems to be logic behind the arguments for the connection, so even if the connection wasn't made in the past, we can make that connection now. If a tradition is to be a genuinely living tradition, it has to allow for development in the present. It cannot only be about reestablishing what was done in the past.

Then, assuming that we make the connection even if we assign five to the Blessed Virgin, what do we do with it? Why bother to do such a thing? This brings us down to the fundamental question as to the purpose of such symbolic numbers. There are different reasons why they are useful. Sometimes is allows for a deeper interpretation of scripture and St Augustine especially was very interested in this.

Also we can order time and space according to it. Number has a special property in that it can be both conceived in the abstract and then assigned to matter and time. In this sense it occupies both the material world and the world of ideas (or perhaps more accurately the 'immaterial' world). We can order time and space in accordance with it, for example designing a work of art, or the dimensions of a building, or even a cycle of prayer around fivefold symmetry, five relative units of length, or five repetitions respectively.

There is an important point to make in regard to this: the symbolism is not arbitrarily assigned. If there is anything to it all it is because the number symbolism reflects and reveals some underlying truth, and so helps us to understand better (sometimes at an intuitive level) what it is pointing to. This being so, when we design a window, for example, that is based around an image or theme of Our Lady and if the number five is truly symbolic of her, then the window will be more beautiful and suited to its purpose in all ways if its design is ordered to it - a fivefold symmetry, for example. One of the attributes of beauty listed by St Thomas is 'due proportion'. The argument here would be that ordering the design of things associated with Our Lady to the number five is appropriate or 'due'. In another recently posted article I argued, here, that the octagonal design, linked to the symbolism of eight as the eighth day of creation, in Raphael's Mond Crucifixion contributed significantly to its beauty and its effectiveness as a work of art. This is true, and here is the important point, regardless of whether or not the viewer is conscious of the design feature or of the symbolism. In the case of the Raphael, I was attracted by the beauty of the painting long before I noticed this design feature. Once I had noticed it, it gave me greater understanding of Raphael's methods, but did not change one iota my appreciation of his painting.

If we forget this and are not discerning in our interpretation and application of these numbers, there is a real danger that the whole topic degenerates into a game in which the initiated communicate with each other via a secret language. Some who I have met do treat this as a secret knowledge that only those who are ready may know. This strikes me as a modern day Gnoticism that is to be discouraged.

My introduction to these ideas came through people who, despite their great interest in tradition, subscribe to a philosophy they called perennialism or universalism, which as I understand it gained popularity in the 20th century. As far as I was able to grasp their position, they maintain that the major religions are equally valid revelations by God to different cultures. This meant the people I met were always looking for elements common to all as the basis of truth. While I am grateful for the work these people have done in showing me and many others aspects of my own tradition that I would very likely not have known otherwise, I am wary in accepting uncritically any interpretations they give. I try to seek authenticatification from a Catholic source, such as the writings of a Church Father, before wholeheartedly embracing it.

As to whether or not I will use fivefold symmetry in paintings of Our Lady? I need to think about it and perhaps give it a try, and see how it turns out.

A plan of the Lady Chapel at Wells Cathedral (the alcove top, centre in the diagram). The furthest three facets do correspond, within the bounds of accuracy of working in such a diagram, to part of a pentagon.

The path traced by the planet Venus across the night sky. This diagram comes from a modern analysis. Some may question to as to whether this would have been known by the classical world or the medievals. I do not know, but think it is possible. The reason that Venus, which would otherwise be another bright light in the sky, was differentiated from the other stars is that it appeared to move independently of the rest of the stars, which all moved together as a single canopy rotating around the pole star. If they could distinguish Venus as being different, then I would imagine that they studied its motion across the sky with great precision.