What’s So Sacred About Geometry?

From Webster’s Dictionary:

sacred:  pp of sacren, to consecrate.   1a: dedicated to or set apart for the service or worship of a diety.  1b: devoted exclusively to one service or use.  2a: worthy of religious exercises; holy.  2b: entitled to love and respect.  3: of or relating to religion; not secular or profane.

The main source of the following information is distilled from years of study, reading, and referring, to Fr. Egon Sendler’s book,  The Icon: Image of the Invisible.

Ancient peoples worked out an ideal of beauty that was determined by mathematical formulas.  Beauty and physical perfection was a matter of numerical relationships, including geometry.  The isosceles triangle, with its perfect symmetry and firm foundation, was the basis of creative works in many cultures.

The knowledge of mathematics was applied to astronomy, music, architecture, sculpture, and art. Very often the numerical proportions were used for temples (like the Parthenon), and images of the gods (Greek and Roman statues), as ideals of beauty.  This exaltation of beauty was more suitable for depicting the divine and perfect, rather than for ordinary dwellings and villages.  The intention of using the proportions for worship set aside the geometry in this context as sacred.

When Christianity became prominent during the Byzantine era, these ideals were kept and adapted, but now there were new goals: to depict the human being as body AND soul, transfigured by grace.  The harmony was found within the form, rather than in external numerical relationships,  in modules based on nose length (a radius) and head size (concentric circles based on the radius of the nose).

In the new Christian understanding of humanity, art, and our relationship to God, the three dimensional world did not matter as much.  Instead, the Byzantine Christian artist was depicting a spiritual world with no dimensions at all.  In the earliest days of Christian art, communication was much more important than aesthetics; meaning more important than the exaltation of beauty.  Reverence, honor, and prayer were the immediate aim of the images. However, in time icons and mosaics devoted to the worship of God became exquisitely beautiful and stylistically unique.

Cultural and historical context were mostly irrelevant, although some elements of the Byzantine culture were used as vehicles of symbolic meaning, such as items of clothing and the “band of authority” over the shoulder.  This band represented the authority of the king when worn for secular business, and the authority of The Lord as truth and ruler of all, in an icon.

These elements became standardized to enable every viewer to understand and comprehend the meaning and message. Canons (laws and guidelines) were established for this purpose, and also to ensure consistency with church teaching.  The “nose module” became a standard unit of measure.  The canons allowed for simplifying and stylizing the figure distinctively, for a holy and liturgical purpose.

As the Byzantine Empire became a dominant power, its artistic expressions became widely known.  Images became archetypes, invested with doctrinal meaning, yet still expressing an internal harmony and cohesiveness.  Shapes like the balanced and pleasing isosceles triangle, and the circle became more than symbols and were integrated into the message and the composition, intrinsic to the icon.  The iconographer  devoted these geometric tools to the creation of works made specifically to worship God in Christian liturgy and prayer.

Why use the nose for the basic module, for the radius of a circle that all proportions are based on?  The most simple reason is that the root of the nose is the center of the head circle.  Ancient people also regarded it as the seat of wisdom. (This belief persists today in Hinduism and yoga: it is the site of the 6th chakra, the place of “concealed wisdom”, the place of the 3rd eye of the body, the intellect.) This widely held belief was readily adapted into the Byzantine language of the icon, and automatically understood among many cultures.

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About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
This entry was posted in art, Icon, Iconography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to What’s So Sacred About Geometry?

  1. SR says:

    Where to you get all of this stuff???? God Bless, SR

  2. Always a reason for something, that’s my mantra. Teaching Christianity through these beautiful paintings!

  3. Pingback: What’s So Sacred About Geometry? | ChristianBookBarn.com

  4. Since following your blog, Reinkat, I have found myself being more drawn to icons and trying to find the similarities and symbolism in them.

  5. lilyboat says:

    wow! I learned so many new things here! I will have to come back and read again. “the Byzantine Christian artist was depicting a spiritual world with no dimensions at all. In the earliest days of Christian art, communication was much more important than aesthetics” This very much explains what it is about the icons that I am so drawn to. Thank you for the clarification!

    I am following your blog, but for some reason your new posts are not showing up on my Reader page. I wonder how to fix it.. Thank you for this enlightening post.

    • reinkat says:

      Thank you for the comment and encouragement. I am the last person to come to for insights as to technology. I am frightened of my own telephone, let alone computers! But I did notice that I get some notifications, and not others, and sometimes there is a place to click that says you want to get emails about this blog . . . maybe that might be it.

  6. francisca leighton says:

    have you met egon sendler? and marko rupnik?

    • reinkat says:

      I have not met them, although my teachers and mentors were students of Fr.Sendler. I do not know Marko Rupnik. But I will be googling him soon and learning.
      Have you studied personally with them?

  7. Biltrix says:

    God is so good.

    It’s funny. One of my strongest strengths is math. I got it from my Dad. He can calculate anything in his head with scary precision. Nonetheless, as much as I love my Dad, I never loved math — no passion for it in me. But, this post makes me ask, Is there a place in the universe where God does not speak to us?

    Numbers and lines, the most abstract forms, even through these God communicates — through us, in art, in the icon.

    I asked you the question on your last post about the meaning of sacred geometry, because I wanted to know what is so sacred about it. I didn’t question because of doubts, but because I want to know about the details of iconography.

    I love art and I love God — not science, math, and logic unless I can find something transcendent in them. Otherwise, they are meaningless. Just data.

    God is ubiquitous. If I can find him everywhere, I can love him everywhere. That is where sacred art elevates my soul. Through art, we can find God’s sacred face Everywhere. In art, and in nature. Unless human knowledge finds God, the world of science, math, logic, and even art are vacant for me. Thank God for revealing his face to us.

    Thanks for your revealing posts.

    • reinkat says:

      You’re welcome–and thank you for your wonderful comment. I don’t know much about math either, nor have too much interest in it beyond the practical uses. I am also fairly ignorant about music/music theory but have been told that there is a big connection between musical things and mathematical relationships. Not quite sure how it all fits together but I will take it on faith that it does. God does indeed reveal Himself everywhere, and it is a wonderful thing.

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