Tuesday, June 09, 2020

How to Use Symbolic Number to Make Art and Architecture Appeal to Human Nature

All people who contribute creatively to the culture can use the ordering principle of symbolic numbers to enhance the attractiveness and brilliance of their work. However, they must understand how it works. These are not magic signs that transform anything they are attached to. Here I explain some ways in which we can understand the appropriate use of the symbolic, qualitative properties of numbers.
In our consideration of the symbolic meaning of numbers, it is important to understand that number is not a cause of the property it symbolizes. In his commentary on the Creation story of Genesis, Benedict XVI describes how the number 10 in the Old Testament symbolizes the authority of God. So we recognize that there are 10 commandments, and also that in the creation process the phrase ‘God said’ appears 10 times. The pattern of 10 applied to commands from God connects the two together and simultaneously reflects something that is true about them. I cannot, however, lend the authority of God to something that does not have it simply by attaching the number 10 to it in some way. If I say, ‘Give me $1,000,’ for example, it does not suddenly become the will of God as I utter the tenth repetition of the phrase. That would be a false symbolism.

No, a product with this mark is NOT endorsed by God!
The writers of scripture regularly used this special property of number, that of being easily transferred from one entity or idea, to connect different events, affecting our understanding of each.

For example, according to a traditional interpretation of the Gospels, when Christ commanded the distribution of food to feed the 5,000, there was a surplus which was gathered up in 12 baskets. Early commentators such as Origen thought that the number twelve indicated that the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 baskets of bread were a figure of spiritual nourishment that Christ was bringing them.

Similarly, after the feeding of the 4,000, there were seven baskets left. Seven was the number of the gentile tribes who were displaced from the Promised Land, and this indicates that Christ has now come to give everlasting life to all peoples, Israelite (12) and Gentile (7) alike. There are therefore eight nations in all, symbolizing all the peoples who comprise the mystical body of Christ, who is, symbolically, the eighth day.

Cathedral of St Mary, Burgos, Spain
Seven and its completion in eight often occur together. Seven also symbolizes the number of the old covenant, coming from the seven days of creation and the connected pattern of living according to seven days in the week. (Incidentally, even today, Romance languages such as French, for example, use the Latin names for the seven planets visible to the naked eye to denote the seven days of the week.) Eight symbolizes the new covenant, because Christ ushers in the new order through His life, death, and resurrection. We celebrate that resurrection on Sunday (day of both the sun and the Son), which is simultaneously the eighth day of the previous week, and the first of the next.

The dome of Ely Cathedral, England
This pattern of 7+1 governs much of the structure of Christian liturgy and prayer, connecting us to the realization that the fulfillment of the old covenant is in Christ, who is the new covenant, and whom we encounter most profoundly in our worship in the Eucharist.

We see this pattern elsewhere in the liturgy. Aside from the weekly cycle, it governs the daily cycle of prayer as well. In the sixth century, St Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine Order, underlined an aspect of “liturgical number” in chapter 16 of his Rule by looking to the Old Testament: “the prophet says, ‘Seven times daily I have sung your praises (Psalm 118:164),’ and ‘At midnight I rise to praise you (Psalm 118:62).’ ” He then tells us we will “cleave to this sacred number” by singing the psalms eight times a day at Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.

Man cannot address his attention to prayer constantly, but must attend to the needs of life. These eight occasions of prayer during the day are portals through which grace pours into the daily life and to the degree we cooperate, sanctifies the times between prayer by integrating them with the cosmic rhythm of the liturgy. Even if we do not participate in all offices ourselves, the Church collectively does, and we benefit from the prayers of those who pray on behalf of the Church.

To give another example, there are seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. The first three relate to heavenly things, the last three to earthly things and the central petition, the fourth is “Give us this day our daily bread.” As St Thomas Aquinas explains in his commentary, this petition can be understood in two ways. First, it is “the sacramental Bread, the daily use of which is profitable to man, and in which all the other sacraments are contained, or of the bread of the body so that it denotes all-sufficiency of food.” So again we see a 7+1 structure. This is indeed, therefore, the Lord’s prayer, indicated by the fact that He gave it to us, and that its content and place within the liturgy speak of Him, but also by the numerical pattern in which the text is constructed.

Those who are aware of the symbolism of number will very likely recognize it, and then delight in the idea that the structure and information that texts contain is ordered according to the same pattern of the cosmos, and that both conform to the pattern of heaven.

The assumption of the ancients was that we are made by God to see His mark in both the material and spiritual order, and that is why we delight in a pattern that directs us to divine beauty. While understanding the nature of a pattern can give us greater sensitivity to its beauty, it is not always necessary. We do not need to know anything about the mathematics of harmony and proportion in order to respond to the beauty of the cosmos. Similarly, we can respond to the beauty of the Lord’s prayer without knowing that the thematic structural symmetry is governed by the numbers seven and eight.

The dome in the Chapter House at York Minster, England
Artists, writers, and architects can choose to incorporate this symbolism into their work so as to enhance its attraction, if done appropriately, and reveal the truth. The painter Raphael, working in 16th century Italy, in the octagonal design of his ‘Mond’ crucifixion (as described in my book, The Way of Beauty) conveys the significance of the “eighth day” symbolizing the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. One can see the octagon traced out by the heads of the onlookers below and the heads and feet of the two flanking angels. This is not intended simply to be a coded language that only the cognoscenti can see. Rather, the expectation is that when the design of the painting is in harmony with the truths the artist intends to portray, it will sensitize our hearts to the reception of that truth and appeal to us at a deep, intuitive level as an object of beauty. The same logic underlies the convention of octagonal design of baptismal fonts and baptistries, and the octagonal patterns in the floor tiles of the central aisles of churches.

We should be aware that the use of number symbolism does not guarantee cosmic beauty. Even if the symbolism is appropriate, it is still possible for a bad architect or artist to use it badly. However, when used appropriately and well by an artisan with a sense of the beautiful, symbolic number is a code, which can be either embedded or apparent, that appeals powerfully to our human nature. Given this, I am surprised that artists and architects do not use it more often.

Progress? The octagonal shape doesn’t guarantee the place of worship we would like to see. Architects have to respect all other prerequisites of church architecture. Here is a modern octagonal chapel. This is what today’s universities train our architects to produce!
Gothic masons who didn’t have a university degree between them designed and built this octagonal chapter house at York Minster, England.

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