Friday, April 08, 2011

Covenantal Proportion as a Design Principle

Most of my reading of scripture comes through the liturgy – that is the readings from both the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. I do my best to do some Lectio Divina each day (reading Shawn Tribe’s wonderful piece on the ‘Four Pillars’ of the new liturgical movement has given a recent boost to this effort) and even for this I draw on the liturgy, tending to use the readings from Mass for that day. What is amazing is how often the scripture or the commentary by the Church Fathers speaks to me about something that is on my mind. I have always thought that perhaps this is because the principles contained within scripture are applicable in every area of life and so any given passage is likely to contain lessons for my particular concern, if I am ready to look for them. Scripture is rooted in Truth, which is a single jewel, so to speak, but one that is seen that is seen as a multifaceted prism and one facet is always facing me square on no matter which direction I observe from. Enough of my musings of scripture – I am already out of my depth here. The point is of this article is not a profound lesson in life, but of one of a little help to my art. A passage from the Office of Readings for Friday of the 3rd week of Lent caught my eye in regard to, of all things, principles of proportion in gothic cathedrals; which in turn become a consideration for me in the composition design of works of art.

The passage was Exodus 37 and it described the dimensions with which the Ark of the Covenant were to be constructed by an extraordinarily talented man called Bezalel (who seemed to good at just about everything to do with fine art). In cubits these were: 2.5 x 1.5 x 1.5. Similar dimensions were proscribed for the mercy seat on which it was to stand. The same week I heard a description of measurements of gothic cathedrals in which the ratio of 5:3 appears very often (within the bounds of accuracy when measuring the dimensions of a cathedral).

Interestingly, this ratio (5:3) appears also in the description of the construction of the Noah’s ark. St Augustine directly links the dimensions of Noah’s ark to the perfect proportions of a man, exemplified he says, in Christ. This echoes the classical proportions of the perfect man as described by the Roman Vitruvius in his textbook for architects. Furthermore, Boethius, in his book De Arithmetica, lists a series of 10 perfect proportions that he says came from Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and ‘later thinkers’. The final proportion of the series, called the Fourth of Four contains right at the beginning this ratio. (The references for these can be found in an article Harmonious Proportion in the Christian Tradition, here.)

Does this mean that this is the reasoning the gothic architects had in mind when they used this proportion? Perhaps. I am not aware of a gothic architect’s manuscript in which the connection is made directly so am hesitant to say so definitively. But we do know that geometry and proportion were important to them and they did use tradition which in turn drew on scripture, arithmetic and observation of nature to govern the use of those proportions. This all amounts to pretty strong evidence that, at the very least, it might be so. Some suggest that as this ratio approximates to that contained within the Golden Section, and that this was what the gothic masons were aiming for. Again, this might be the case although I have not read of any account dating from this period or before that indicates that this proportion had symbolic meaning at the time or was used by masons. I would be very happy to be directed to any that readers might be aware of.

And does this mean that we should use the ratio 5:3 now? All of this does suggest to me that we should give it a try. If we accept the idea that some proportions are objectively more beautiful than others (as all architects did up to the 20th century), then this points to the idea that due proportion would include this ratio.

The final and most important test when deciding this is as follows: are things that are constructed to incorporate this dimension beautiful? That is down to each person to answer. I for one, when looking at those gothic cathedrals would say yes (whatever the symbolism in the mind of the architect was); and this is why is seek to use it in the design of my art. If I was an architect, I would incorporate it into my designs too.

Images: Above: The Sacrifice of the Old Covenant, by Rubens; Below: Leornardo's rendition of the Vitruvian man; and details of Amiens cathedral

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: