The Proportions of the Ark of the Covenant

14 04 2011

And how it can be a principle of design of buildings. 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 will be 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; and below: Leornardo’s rendition of the Vitruvian man; and details of Amiens cathedral.

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14 04 2011
The Proportion of the Ark of the Covenant « The Way of Beauty «

[…] The Proportion of the Ark of the Covenant « The Way of Beauty. […]

15 04 2011
The Proportion of the Ark of the Covenant « The Way of Beauty

[…] The Proportion of the Ark of the Covenant 15 04 2011 And how it can be a principle of design of buildings. 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. Read the rest of this entry » […]

15 04 2011
Tom Bree

Hello David,

Interesting stuff. Yes, this ratio is in Wells too. Where did you hear about the 5:3 that you mentioned in your piece? It’s Noah’s ark as well by the way.

Yours in Christ

Tom

15 04 2011
Tom Bree

Hello again,

Just noticed that you mentioned Noah’s ark. I’m still learning to read as you can see 🙂 T

15 04 2011
davidicons

Hi Tom, but it’s good to hear from you nevertheless. I used the photograph of you in ‘geometry heaven’ in north Africa in my class at the college just this week! The measurements came from a book that was mentioned to me a faculty member here: the book was by Stephen Murray of Columbia university. The other thing that I didn’t mention is that it is one of the fundamental musical harmonies (not one of the basic Pythagorean) but something like an octave and a fifth (forget precisely now) which was known and used in the gothic period in both music and building.
Do you have any details of the measurements at Wells? I could do a follow up post.
Very best wishes
David

17 04 2011
Tom Bree

Hello David,

Blessings for Palm Sunday. I’m about to go for the procession up at the Cathedral west front. Apparently the Wells west front was built especially with Palm Sunday in mind – it’s all about the entry into ‘Jerusalem’.

I can’t really say anything more about the Wells geometry for now because of having to keep Ph.D findings under wraps but in a few years I’ll be publicising the findings as far and wide as I can.

Thanks for the reference – I’ll have to look up Stephen Murray.

Do you remember that Hildegard chant I played a recording of at Maryvale to accompany a slideshow? It had a reed drone playing underneath the vocals which was playing the musical first and fifth. The recording is called “A feather on the breath of God” and the singer is Emma Kirkby. It’s a gem.

Tom

17 04 2011
DAVID CLAYTON

I do. That style is called organum and it can be done with any chant that is in the modal form by adding, as you say, the tonic or the 5th or both. We sing the Mass each Sunday in Latin in the traditional chants. The propers to the Mass ie those parts that change depending on which particular Sunday it is, we quite often sing as organum, adding the tonic and sometimes the 5th as well, depending on how full we feel the sound ought to be. At the Feast of the Annunciation recently, we opened with Ave Maris Stella, a 9th century hymn (or thereabouts), which you very likely know is connecting Mary with the North Star (star of the sea). We sang that with the tonic and it was very powerful.

25 11 2015
Adrian Johnson

In the Primary Church [“Cathedral”] of the Anglican Ordinariate in Houston Texas, –the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, — the golden custom-made tabernacle is the ark of the covenant with the Hebrew letters “alpha” and” “omega” (reading right to left) on its double doors.
It seems to me that the proportions you have described are those of this pleasing tabernacle.
The flat space atop the ark, between the two kneeling Seraphim, is a throne for the monstrance at Eucharistic adoration. The Church of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston, TX has a website where you can see this wonderful tabernacle.

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