Sacred geometry has played a crucial if often overlooked role in Western civilization. Nowhere is this more apparent than during the Renaissance. In cities such as Florence, artists and architects rediscovered the styles and wisdom of Greece and Rome. Hidden in many famous paintings, buildings, and sculptures are geometric proportions such as the Golden Mean.
The Renaissance generally refers to the period between roughly the 14th and 17th centuries when politicians, artists, philosophers, writers, and others rediscovered the pagan values of ancient Greece and Rome. During this time, the influence of the Church was declining and people were starting to embrace a more humanistic and rationalistic mindset. At the same time, esoteric principles such as sacred geometry and alchemy were exerting a subtle but still very important influence on society.
Sacred Geometry in the Buildings of Florence
Florence was at the center of the Renaissance and there are many instances of sacred geometry in its cathedrals and other buildings.
Battistero di San Giovanni
Sacred geometry was widely used during the Renaissance but its roots go back to distant antiquity. Even in Europe, the Flower of Life and Golden Ratio patterns are commonly found in medieval art and architecture. For example, one of the most famous buildings in Florence, as well as the oldest structure in the Piazza del Duomo square, is the Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of Saint John). This cathedral was constructed in the 12th century, well before the beginning of the Renaissance. The Battistero's dome is based on the Golden Ratio. Additionally, this building has a large sundial portraying the 12 signs of the Zodiac.
The Battistero is a perfect example of a medieval cathedral that was built earlier but greatly enhanced during the Renaissance. The Baptistery's doors, designed by Andrea Pisano in 1329, consist of 28 panels which display, among many other features, the classical virtues of faith, hope, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence. A Collection of bronze statues was added in the 16th century depict the beheading of St. John the Baptist.
The Bell Tower and the Sacred Number 7
Another magnificent feature of Duomo Square in Florence is Giotto's Bell Tower, with panels depicts many typical Renaissance themes in groups of 7.
- 7 Liberal Arts: painting, sculpture, architecture, sculpture and the sciences of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy.
- 7 planets (recognized at the time): Moon, Sun, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn (which of course correspond to gods and goddesses).
- 7 Virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity, Justice, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude.
- 7 Sacraments: Baptism, Confession, Eucharist, Holy Order, Matrimony, Confirmation, the Extreme Unction
The number 7, of course, has always been significant in sacred geometry. We find many references to 7 in mythology and spiritual literature around the world, from the Bible to the Sumerians, Hindus, and Romans. The number 7 is fundamental to sacred geometry and spirituality as well as the creation myths of the Sumerians and Assyrians. There are, of course, 7 chakras in yoga and Ayurvedic medicine.
The Golden Ratio in Renaissance Artists
Many of the greatest artists of the Renaissance employed the Golden Mean in their paintings, sculptures, and other works.
Raphael, one of the era's greatest painters, was also a student and practitioner of sacred geometry. He employs the Golden Ratio in works such as The School of Athens, a great fresco on the Stanze di Raffaello, in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. Aside from its precise geometric proportions, the subject of the work is a study in Renaissance tendency to unite religion, classical philosophy, the arts, and sciences. Among the many figures depicted in this large and complex fresco are Aristotle, Heraclitus, Socrates, and Pythagoras, a pivotal figure in the history of sacred geometry.
Leonardo da Vinci
There are numerous examples of sacred geometry in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, perhaps the most famous artist of the Renaissance. The Last Supper, aside from containing astrological symbolism (e.g. 12 disciples correspond to the 12 signs of the Zodiac), contains interesting geometrical shapes such as Christ's body forming an equilateral triangle. There's also a strong argument that Leonardo used the Golden Ratio in his most renowned painting, the Mona Lisa.
Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel
Evidence of the Golden Ratio can be found in Michelangelo's brilliant work in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. As Gary Meisner reports, the Golden Ratio appears more than two dozen times in the Sistine Chapel, such as in The Creation of Adam where the hands of Adam and God touch. This technique can also be found in other paintings such as God Creates Eve and God Divides the Waters From the Earth.
The Renaissance: Ancient Wisdom Preserved
As noted, sacred geometry goes back much further than the Renaissance. Evidence of The Golden Ratio and other such elements can be found in ancient cultures throughout the world. The artists, architects, and philosophers of the Renaissance, however, rediscovered many of the most useful as well as aesthetically pleasing elements of the ancient world.
It's fairly well known that Renaissance artists were inspired by ancient themes such as Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. This period is also known as part of the transition from a religious to a more secular and humanistic worldview. This, however, is only part of the picture. The Renaissance ethic was quite holistic, incorporating religion, esoteric topics (including sacred geometry), art, and science. It wasn't until later that these and other disciplines were separated into distinct fields.
If it hadn't been for the Renaissance, many of the ideas of the ancient world might have faded into obscurity. While knowledge of sacred geometry and related fields such as Hermeticism, alchemy, and Kabbalah (all of which also have ancient roots) did go underground for many years, they were also preserved by a dedicated group of thinkers, artists, and historians. Here are just a few relevant figures who helped to codify and preserve this type of knowledge.
- Albrecht Dürer. This German artist created profound works such as his Melencolia I. This engraving contains a mysterious polyhedron that art experts are still studying today.
- Robert Fludd. An alchemist whose Images of the Divine contain many references to sacred geometry.
- Isaac Newton. Not everyone knows that this famous mathematician was also fascinated with esoteric studies. Among other things, he conducted extensive research on the sacred geometry of Solomon's Temple.
Sacred geometry is almost as old as civilization itself. You can find evidence of it in prehistoric megalithic structures, ancient temples, medieval churches, Renaissance art and many other periods. The Renaissance, however, was a period of special importance as much esoteric knowledge about geometry (and many other fields) was brought to light for the benefit of future generations.